Recreational mowing may prove costly

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Spring and summer brings a bounty of vegetation valuable to wildlife to Arkansas. Native grasses, wild flowers, green briar, blackberries and a host of other plants that help wildlife may be found in old pastures, odd areas, ditch banks, pond edges, field borders or abandoned fields on private property across the state.

However, on many properties, mowing has developed into an annual spring and summer activity without much thought of the cost to healthy wildlife populations. Mowing during the primary nesting season comes at a high cost to wildlife population recruitment, not to mention the great expenses of time and money to land managers. As vegetation grows in spring and summer and attracts wildlife, young rabbits are found in their nests, turkey and quail are sitting on their eggs or a recently dropped fawn is provided protection from predators by the vegetative cover.

Arkansas Game and Fish Commission personnel receive reports from landowners every year telling of the destruction of a turkey or quail nest, or running over fawns while bush-hogging areas. These are the known mortalities; far, more wildlife is destroyed than the tractor driver ever sees.

To protect nesting wildlife, restrict mowing during the primary nesting season which is April 1-July 15 in Arkansas. Delaying mowing into August is even better to protect any late-nesting or re-nesting wildlife.

According to AGFC Private Lands Coordinator David Long, the notion that a field is unkempt if it is allowed to grow up continues to cause landowners to sometimes bow to pressure.

"For whatever the reason a landowner mows, mowing during this part of the wildlife nesting and production year results in lower wildlife populations throughout the year," Long said.

Without disturbance, even the best open-land habitat can revert to thick, young forest in a matter of 5-10 years, sometimes sooner.

However, disturbances such as prescribed burning, strip disking or herbicide treatment can maintain these open areas for their benefits to early successional wildlife species. These practices are best to conduct before April 1 and after July 15 or later, depending on the specific practice.

For the landowner whose only option is mowing, strip mowing versus whole field mowing can be used outside primary nesting season, although the wildlife benefits are not nearly as high as prescribed burning, disking or herbicide practices. Mow a third to half the field each year and let the other half to two-thirds grow.

Mow a 50-foot strip, skip the next 50-100 feet, and mow another strip, using this alternating mow/skip method across the entire field. Wider strips may be used with larger fields.

If you have major problems with invasive woody species, mowing just makes most tree or shrub seedlings grow more through increased spouting.

Spot spraying with the appropriate herbicide is the best treatment to control woody invasion. Mowing most woody species does not kill the plants and they remain a problem you will have to address the next year, usually with more woody sprouts to deal with.

For the landowner interested in managing for wildlife, leaving scattered fruit- and seed-bearing shrubs or trees can provide additional food sources for wildlife.

Landowners who must mow during the nesting season should mow from the middle of the field outward, which will at least allow many adult or young of the year wildlife to escape the mower blades and tractor wheels.

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