Take a look at your fields. Do they end abruptly at a line of tall trees? That’s not good. The best habitat contains soft edges, typically a line of thick, brushy shrubs, woody plants and vines between the shorter cover in the fields and the mature forest. Soft edges provide a fantastic selection of food and abundant cover to all sorts of birds and mammals. Many biologists suggest a soft edge 20 to 30 yards wide, with shorter plants in the front and taller ones against the mature tree line.
Shrubs like viburnum, indigobush and elderberry provide excellent cover and food for a variety of wildlife. Smaller trees like crabapple, serviceberry and other fruit-bearing trees are great choices, too. Many state forestry departments sell bare-root shrub seedlings at a reasonable cost. A variety of native plants will fill in the border, but if you want to speed up the process, don’t hesitate to plant blackberry, raspberry and sumac. You can even transplant them from other parts of your property.
One of the simplest ways to create edge habitat is to cut the mature trees where forest meets field. Doing so allows sunlight to reach the ground, which encourages an entirely new plant community. Native shrubs, vines and woody plants will spring up to create fantastic edge habitat. You don’t even have to remove the fallen trees. Simply let them lay in the fields. That creates new cover that will eventually turn into dense brush piles. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with salvaging the timber, but make sure you leave the tree tops.
If you must mow your fields, consider leaving a wide strip of unmowed ground between the tall trees and the field. It can take several years for good plants like blackberries and native shrubs to grow tall and thick enough to provide good habitat, but they will eventually outcompete fescue and other unwanted plants.
Kill The Grass
Allowing field edges to go fallow is never a bad idea, but if the field contains an abundance of cool-season grass like fescue, you should give it a shot of herbicide. Fescue provides little benefit to wildlife. Treat your field edges with a selective herbicide like sethoxydim or clethodim. Both kill grass, but they don’t harm broadleaf plants, shrubs and trees. Wait until the late fall, though. Other beneficial grasses like broomsedge will be dormant by then.
Keep Them Short
Cutting trees along the edge of a field is a great technique for creating soft edges, but there’s a good chance new trees will take their place. Seeds and even stump sprouts will flourish with the additional sunlight. That’s okay, at least for a while. The idea is to allow dense cover to take over. Thick, young saplings and the vines and shrubs that grow are great feeding and nesting areas for turkeys, quail and other wildlife. Eventually, though, those young trees will climb high enough to shade out other shorter plants and convert the ground back to forest. Cut them when they reach 8 to 10 feet.