Nearly every property has some land that is unsuitable for cultivation, grazing, or haying due to its steepness, soil type, wetness, or small size. These fallow areas — old fields, abandoned house sites, pond edges, wetlands, stream banks or corridors, brushy draws, ditch banks, erosive areas, and even your lawn — can be useful to wildlife. With a little management, they can provide wildlife food, sites for nesting and brood rearing, and protection.
Abandoned pastures and crop fields can provide excellent wildlife habitat. While you may feel inclined or pressured to “clean these areas up to make them look better,” mowing and clearing large areas will simply destroy the seed- and fruit-producing plants that many animals depend upon for food and cover.
Plants such as goldenrod, wild aster, strawberry, ragweed, blackberry, sumac, coral berry (buckbrush), wild plum, and red cedar are all used by wildlife. Many songbirds use wild plum and other low-growing shrubs for nesting, quail use them for escape cover, and deer browse on their twigs.
Keep old fields productive for wildlife by using some of the following techniques:
- Use herbicide to kill tall fescue in old fields. Fescue can inhibit the growth of other plants, and it produces little food or cover for wildlife.
- Keep some spots of bare ground. Studies show that most quail nests are located within a few feet of bare ground. The hen quail will move her chicks immediately after hatching to bare ground in search of grit and insects.
- Disk strips through the field on the contour to expose 75–80 percent of the soil. Allow weeds to grow. You may want to frost seed (frost seeding is to broadcast forage seed in the early spring when the ground freezes at night and thaws during the day) some of the strips at the rate of 3 pounds of Korean lespedeza and ½ pound of ladino clover per acre.
- Burn areas between the disked strips. Burned areas stimulate annual plants, which attract insects that are important to quail chicks and songbirds.
- Burn at different intervals and at different times of the year. Burning the ground litter aids in quail chick movement and exposes seeds.
- Mow and disk 30-foot strips and leave 30-foot strips in late fall to stimulate new growth. After three years, mow the uncut strips again to generate new growth.
- Leave clumps of woody growth about 30-by-50 feet in size (1,500 square feet) to provide wildlife cover.
- Construct downed tree structures. Discarded Christmas trees, smaller trees from forest thinning, and limbs from tree trimming make ideal wildlife cover. Protect these from burning.
- Plant a green-browse plot, a grain food plot, or plant native warm-season grass strips.
Abandoned House Sites
The shrubs, lawn grasses, fruit trees, and weeds found around old homesites are beneficial to wildlife. The stately old trees with their many cavities and high production of nuts, fruits, and seeds are attractive to squirrels, rabbits, quail, deer, and songbirds. Old concrete and rock foundations attract groundhogs, whose burrows provide homes and cover for rabbits, raccoons, and red foxes. Deer eat lawn grasses and shrubs, and quail and turkey broods eat grasshoppers and other insects found around these sites.
Stop Invasive Species
Often invasive nonnative species such as fescue, tree of heaven, autumn olive, bush honeysuckle, and many others are present around abandoned homesites. Familiarize yourself with these undesirable invasive species and control or eliminate them.
Improve Old House Sites
- Place tree limbs and old lumber on the foundations for wildlife cover.
- Plant fruit-bearing shrubs and trees such as walnuts, hazelnut, hawthorn, and wild plum.
- Disk strips around and through the lot to stimulate new growth of grasses and legumes. Early spring or early fall is the best time for disking. Be careful not to mow too much of the area.
A brushy fencerow can provide an important link between different habitat types on your property and is an ideal place to start habitat improvement work.
To make or improve a travel lane, stop mowing, grazing, or cultivating the strip next to the fence. On farms with heavy grazing, install a double fence to protect a travel lane. An electric fence is effective and inexpensive for this purpose, but it must be maintained in good repair. Also, protect the fencerow from wild fire.
If you have a row of trees along your fencerow, consider edge feathering and then planting native warm-season grass (NWSG) along the buffer created. Once NWSG is established, use strip disking to produce early successional habitat and bare ground.
If you cut some of the larger trees in a fencerow for firewood, you can use the tops to make downed tree structures (DTS).
If the fencerow is bare or less than 20 feet wide:
- Plant shrubs such as dogwood, wild plum, grape, cedar, and blackberries to improve the cover.
- Use heavy disking to reduce grass competition and create a seedbed where you can plant the seeds of trees and shrubs such as persimmon, redbud, aromatic sumac, hazelnut, and ninebark, and trees such as oaks, mulberry, cherry, pin oak, and dogwood.
- Apply herbicide to tall fescue to reduce the competition of this aggressive grass.
- Maintain tree seedlings and mulch them with straw or composted sawdust to conserve moisture and reduce grass competition.
- Birds will add other native plants through their droppings.
Brushy draws that extend well into crop or hay fields can provide quality habitat for wildlife and help control soil erosion. A brushy draw should contain vines, brush, grasses, and only an occasional large tree.
- Attract more wildlife by planting more desirable cool-season grasses such as orchard grass, timothy, or redtop, or wildlife-friendly warm-season grasses. Korean lespedeza and ladino clover provide desirable wildlife food.
- Fence out livestock or exclude them from these draws. Cattle can quickly destroy the low-growing shrubs important to wildlife as sources of food and cover.
- Construct downed tree structures (DTS) along the edges and at the head of the draws. To avoid clogging the drainage, don’t place a DTS in the bottom of the draw.
Certain field areas will erode more than others, depending on the soil type, steepness of slope, and land use.
Erosion-prone land can be seeded to various plants that will benefit wildlife and help save the soil.
- Select a good seed mixture appropriate to the soil type and location. Wildlife prefer a legume and grass mixture to a single species seeding.
- Lightly disk or rake the area to expose some bare soil for a seedbed.
- Broadcast the seed mixture, and then spread three bales of wheat-straw mulch for each 1,000 square feet of area.
A cutting of hay may be possible after a few years. Cut hay only once a year, leaving about 6 inches of stubble. Cut hay in alternating strips every other year to keep the plants growing vigorously. This will provide nesting sites, as well as food and cover for wildlife.
You should develop the area around your pond according to what you and your family enjoy. A pond site can be developed for wildlife habitat, fishing, or other types of recreation.
Plant trees and shrubs around the pond for protection and cover.
- Create windbreaks to help reduce wave erosion and provide food and nesting areas for wildlife.
- Do not plant trees on the dam as roots can grow into the dam and cause damage.
- Plant trees far enough from the shore so that they do not interfere with fishing.
You can order seedlings or purchase trees and shrubs at low cost from the Missouri state nursery.
Because wildlife use ponds, provide wildlife with good cover around the pond to increase this use. If you will use the pond's watershed for grazing, fencing around the pond one to one and a half times the pond's water acreage permits the development of ideal wildlife cover. The larger the area, the more attractive it will be to songbirds, furbearers, deer, and wild turkeys.
Springs, Seeps, and Fens
Springs, seeps and fens (upland marshes) are found throughout Missouri but are more common in the Ozarks. These are valuable watering areas for wildlife. Many rare and endangered plants, including orchids, are associated with these unique sites.
They are fragile and subject to erosion when livestock are allowed access. If water for wildlife or livestock is a limiting factor on the farm, water holes should be constructed on other, more suitable sites. Many times fens have been invaded by fescue.
Contact your local MDC natural history biologist, wildlife management biologist, or private land conservationist for management recommendations.
Stream Banks or Riparian Corridors
Trees and shrubs that grow along streams (the riparian corridor) provide important wildlife habitat. Several wildlife species depend on riparian corridors for all or part of their habitat needs. Some species spend their entire lives within this zone.
In the crop-farming regions of Missouri, a strip of riparian corridor may be the only woody cover found on the farm. In heavily forested portions of Missouri, the forest cover could include the bottoms along streams. The kinds of trees that grow along the stream on bottomland soils, however, are different from those on the adjoining slopes. This makes riparian corridors unique. The water and the variety of trees, shrubs, and other plants make riparian woodlands important to wildlife.
Managing Riparian Corridors
Use timber stand improvement in riparian corridors to produce early successional stages of plant and tree growth. This helps to reduce water velocities and drop out sediments, producing food and cover for wildlife.
Improve Narrow Corridors
The riparian corridor should be at least 50 to 100 feet wide on each side of the stream. Where the riparian strip is very narrow or nonexistent, you can improve it by spreading seeds from nearby trees and shrubs. Use a herbicide to kill the tall fescue within these areas. Cottonwoods, green ash, silver maple, willows, sycamore, elm, sweet gum, and yellow poplar have light windborne seeds that germinate if they land on bare soil.
Trees such as pin oak, pecan, black walnut, silver maple, cottonwood, sycamore, yellow poplar, river birch, and sweet gum can be successfully grown from seedlings. Many of these trees make excellent cavity trees at maturity, providing nesting for birds and mammals. A mixture of these trees is ideal because some, such as cottonwood and sycamore, grow fast and provide cavities earlier. Slower-growing long-lived trees, such as sugar maple and swamp white oak, will replace the faster growing trees in later years.
Tree seedlings must be maintained and can be mulched with straw or composted sawdust to conserve moisture and reduce grass competition.
Areas with Large Streams
On large streams, do not remove trees that have fallen into the stream or appear ready to do so. The tree and shrub roots are keeping the bank from eroding. When a tree eventually falls, it creates important in-stream habitat for fish and other aquatic life.
Areas with Small Streams
On smaller streams, each situation requires evaluation on whether the benefits of the fallen tree outweigh any potential damage to the stream or stream bank. Consult your MDC fisheries management biologist or private land conservationist if uncertain. Never use heavy equipment to remove trees or dredge the stream channel.
Protect Riparian Areas from Livestock
Livestock that graze along stream banks can destroy trees and shrubs and cause stream bank erosion. Fence cattle away from stream banks. Where access to water is needed, cattle can be restricted to one watering area to reduce potential erosion.