LEE COUNTY, South Carolina — In a landscape increasingly fragmented by accelerated urbanization, large-scale agriculture and insufficiently managed timberland, ongoing efforts to restore and reintroduce wildlife habitat are playing a critical role in the rejuvenation of a variety of plant and animal species.
Clemson Cooperative Extension agents, in conjunction with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service, are continually providing information and technical assistance to farmers and timberland owners across South Carolina who want to incorporate ecologically friendly methods of restoration into their landscapes.
“One of our main interests is helping farmers and landowners integrate practices into their agriculture and forest management that benefit wildlife,” said T.J. Savereno, a senior associate agent for Clemson Extension. “There have been significant changes in agriculture over the past 50 years, and more of these have led to the decline of certain animal and plant species that are important environmentally, economically and aesthetically. But there are things that can be done — and are being done — to reverse these declines and renew hope for better days to come.”
Decades ago, heavy equipment was less sophisticated and herbicides less available and more expensive, limiting the amount of land a farmer could plant and maintain in a given year. Individual fields were smaller in size and often divided by weedy fence rows and ditchbanks that provided nesting and brood-rearing habitat for species such as bobwhite quail, turkey and other grassland birds. But the trend toward consolidating fields and eliminating weedy vegetation — made possible by larger and improved equipment and chemical weed suppression — literally altered the landscape.
“Over time, small fields were combined into much larger ones without fence rows or weedy borders,” Savereno said. “This allowed farmers to increase yields, but it reduced early successional wildlife habitat and cut off corridors used by animals to safely move throughout their ranges. Additionally, these advances in equipment and chemical technology have made it profitable to plant areas that were previously left fallow due to only marginal economic returns. The grasses, legumes and other flowering plants in these fallow areas were havens for species such as bobwhite quail, cottontail rabbits and native pollinators that have been on the decline.”
Savereno and his fellow forestry and wildlife Extension agents spend much of their time advising farmers and landowners on how to incorporate a variety of methods designed to enhance and restore animal populations, attract native pollinators, filter stormwater runoff, improve water and air quality and reduce soil erosion. These methods include:
- Field borders — Areas between timberlines and crop fields that contain native grasses, legumes and flowering plants. Field borders offer food and protection, as well as nesting and brood-bearing cover.
- Hedgerows — Areas that divide large fields into smaller fields, usually with a center row of trees bordered by shrubby species, such as blueberry and elderberry. On the outer edge of the shrubby areas are grasses and flowering plants. Hedgerows create wildlife corridors through large open fields that many animals would otherwise avoid.
- Riparian forest buffers — Vegetated buffer strips that are usually located near a river or stream to absorb and filter pollutants coming off adjacent land.
- Forest stand improvement — Includes tree thinning, prescribed burns and mechanical and chemical control of undesirable vegetation. Tree thinning allows more sunlight to penetrate the canopy and reach the understory. Fire and other methods control understory vegetation, restore nutrients to the soil and further stimulate the growth of native plants.
- Wildlife habitat corridors — Corridors create habitat from grass, wildflower, shrub or tree plantings in linear strips at least 66 feet wide. They provide shelter for a variety of wildlife, including upland game and songbirds and also serve as a food and nesting resource. Corridors protect soil from erosion and safeguard water quality.
The 2014 Farm Bill provides financial and technical assistance to farmers and timberland owners to address natural resource concerns and deliver environmental benefits under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), administered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Conservation Reserve Program, administered through the Farm Service Agency. Interested landowners should contact their local USDA Service Center to determine eligibility and application procedures.
“These and many other conservation practices friendly to wildlife are cost-shared through various programs under the Farm Bill,” Savereno said. “It’s a competitive process, but well worth the effort to apply for this assistance. These programs offer science-based solutions that benefit the landowner and the environment. To protect the future, we need to take action in the present.”
One South Carolina farmer who has taken action in the present is Britt Rowe, owner and operator of Riverside Farms in Lee County. Rowe’s large operation has about 3,000 acres of row crops — primarily corn, cotton and soybeans — and 700 acres of managed timberland. Most of Rowe’s fields are irrigated, but the dry corners not reached by irrigation are not going to waste. In these border areas, Rowe plants ragweed, partridge pea and even soybeans and corn, creating swaths of habitat and food sources for quail, deer, and a variety of other wildlife. And alongside his timberland, he has set up field borders that include native weeds and switchgrass, which is attractive to everything from birds to native pollinators.
“All this is not cheap or easy to maintain. We’re constantly doing something that is wildlife-oriented,” said Rowe, who is a current EQIP participant. “But there’s no question in my mind that the benefits outweigh the cost and labor. I’ve owned this farm for about 13 years, and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. It has definitely been worth the effort.”