By Pam Owen
THE SINGLE greatest threat to our native wildlife is habitat loss.
While some native species can adapt more readily to changes in habitat, others depend on particular plants, geology, and climatic conditions to survive. With increasing development of land, habitat that is necessary to the very survival of some species is rapidly disappearing.
The good news is that a growing number of private property owners recognize the value of native habitat and are restoring and protecting it on their land. In Rappahannock County we’re fortunate to have a strong conservation ethic. Many individual property owners have taken on the challenging task of restoring land that was once used for farming to native habitat, and farmers are increasingly using sustainable practices that integrate native habitat with crops and pasture, to provide for wildlife as well as humans.
Want to go wild in your backyard but don’t own hundreds of acres? While large properties can support larger and more diverse wildlife, you can make a difference with considerably less-and even if you rent. Planting a single native plant can provide food and shelter for many species. Put up a bird or bat house, and you’ll provide a home and help keep the local insect population in balance.
In some cases not taking action can benefit wildlife-leaving a dead tree standing can provide a wildlife hotel; leaving a field fallow can provide rich habitat for myriad species; not draining a wetland can give you a frog chorus in the spring.
One of the most endangered habitats in Virginia is forest edge-that space between field and forest that that has a mix of grasses, shrubs, and saplings. Just by not plowing or mowing up to the forest, you can provide habitat for species that are rapidly disappearing, like our native bobwhite quail. If you have a large forest tract, you can cut down a few trees along the edge and leave them where they fall, instantly providing shelter for these edge species.
Another significant threat to wildlife is habitat fragmentation, where tracts of native habitat are interrupted by farming or development. Many native animal species need large areas of native habitat to survive, or at least corridors to move from one area to the next-for food, shelter, and finding a mate.
Before herbicides and sophisticated machinery, the fences and stone walls that separated fields were often covered with native vines and shrubs, providing a link from one wild area to another. Today, it’s easier to keep these fence lines “tidy” by human standards but barren of food and cover for wildlife. By planting native shrubs or vines, or just not clearing out what will naturally grow if left alone, you can link habitat fragments for some species and provide habitat similar to forest edge for others.
If you’re more ambitious and want to really go back to the land, you may have to start from scratch by clearing land of nonnative invasive species. This may entail using a range of tools-from prescribed burns, to manual extraction, to careful application of herbicides.Habitat projects can be exciting but daunting.
Where can you get help? Many government and nongovernmental organizations offer information, onsite expertise, plants, and even funding for habitat management. –Rappahannock News