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Mowing for Wildlife

Though mowing may feel like a chore at times, using the right techniques can work wonders for actively managing wildlife habitat. Overgrown ditches, weedy roadsides or shrub-infested field edges may seem like eyesores, but wild turkeys, quail, pheasants, cottontail rabbits and deer may see the same areas for their food, nesting habitat, shelter, hiding spots and feeding areas for offspring.

Hopping on a riding mower or brushhog and turning everything into an immaculately trimmed lawn worthy of any golf course may be tempting, but doing so would strip these areas of vital habitat for ground-nesting birds and mammals.

“Mowing resets the system and encourages the growth of native forbs and grasses that are important to wildlife,” says Scott Vance, NWTF assistant vice president of conservation programs administration. “But be sure to mow at the right time of year. Trimming grasses too short or at the wrong time may do more harm than good.”

Mowing to Improve Wildlife Habitat

  • Increase habitat diversity by maintaining roadsides, ditches and field edges in native plant communities to increase habitat diversity. These early successional habitat areas, where large trees are removed to allow sunlight to reach small, food-bearing shrubs and trees, provide important forage for wild turkeys, northern bobwhite quail, deer and numerous songbirds.

  • Avoid mechanical disturbance of unmowed areas until late July or early August to prevent accidentally running over ground-nesting birds, white-tailed deer fawns and nesting cottontails.

  • Vary mowing schedules or mow on a set schedule so that some areas are mowed once every three seasons to create habitats in varying successional stages and provide greater habitat diversity

  • Recognize that your mowing objective should not be solely to eliminate weeds. Many so-called weeds are highly desirable for wildlife. For example, foxtail, partridge pea, ragweed and beggar’s lice are favorite foods of northern bobwhite quail and mourning doves, and weedy insect-rich fields provide crucial habitat for wild turkey, quail and songbird broods.

  • Cut cool-season grasses in late May to allow the grasses to grow or some nesting to take place in June and July without disturbance from mowing.

  • Allow grass to grow for one season between mowings if only one harvest is needed to meet the hay needs for a particular year. If mowing is used to control summer weeds in cool season pastures, wait as late as possible into summer to minimize nest destruction.

  • Convert portions of hay fields to Native Warm Season Grasses (NWSG), such as indiangrass and big bluestem to greatly benefit wildlife. NWSGs, a lightweight seed that requires precise planting and warm weather to grow, provide quality nesting and brood rearing habitat for ground nesting birds. These grasses grow most actively from June to September, so they should be cut after most wildlife nesting activity has taken place.

  • Avoid mowing warm-season grasses below six to eight inches. These plants store a significant amount of their energy in the base of the stem, just above the ground, and cutting the plants too short may damage or kill them.

  • Clip areas being managed exclusively for wildlife to about eight to 10 inches. This leaves enough stubble to provide some cover until the plant canopy recovers.

  • Set up a rotational mowing system if the objective of mowing is to maintain thickets of young trees for wildlife. Mow a given strip or plot once every three to five years. This will keep woody stems small enough for most mowing equipment to handle.

Mowing for Other Treatments

In addition to mowing for habitat management, mowing also can be used to prepare for other treatments such as prescribed burning or herbicide application. For prescribed burning, mowing around the inside edges of firebreaks will limit flame height and lessen the potential for fire escapes. Mow before applying herbicide to stimulate growth and improve herbicide uptake into the treated vegetation.

“In addition to benefiting wildlife, mowing is a wonderful tool for maintaining paths through fields and woods,” NWTF Chief Conservation Officer James Earl Kennamer, Ph.D., says. “Trails offer better access for wildlife viewing and hunting, and double as firebreaks in the event of a wildfire.”

Vance also notes that prescribed burning should be considered as an alternative to mowing for managing some fields. Although burning requires more extensive planning, it is usually much less expensive and time consuming than mowing, and produces many wildlife and forage benefits.

For landowners who appreciate the benefits and aesthetic qualities of wildlife, mowing is an investment in maintaining quality wildlife habitat. Consider the benefits of prescribed burns as an alternative to mowing to maintain grassland and forest health and wildlife habitat.

For more information about managing your property for wildlife, contact the NWTF at (800) THE-NWTF.




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