The last ice age left our part of Ohio flat and covered with beautiful topsoil. In the last few decades, this combination has resulted in individual farmers planting thousands of acres with ever-larger farm equipment. Decades ago our rural county was known for having many pheasants and songbirds, but now wildlife is as scarce as the remaining fencerows which previously provided habitat. Fences and their greenery have been removed to make room for maneuvering huge farm equipment.
Farmers actually consider themselves “bad farmers” if there are still “messy” fencerows on their land. There are immense consequences to losing these fencerows - to soil, water, crops and wildlife.
Fencerows and hedgerows were ubiquitous when farm equipment was small. They are still common where terrain is hilly and fields remain small. Fencerows were originally constructed to contain livestock or demark property boundaries. Hedgerows, which lack man-made fences, served similar purposes while being made up of shrubs and trees. As these living boundaries disappear, we become aware of the many other purposes they served.
Fencerows provide wildlife with shelter and food as well as a corridor for travel. Diverse species of animals assist farmers with a degree of insect control that rivals today’s insecticides. A great variety of plants are fostered that lure and support pollinators.
Fencerows and hedgerows control erosion which helps prevent loss of topsoil and pollution of streams. On our farm, a ten foot-wide fencerow around the meadow also provides shade and a windbreak for the cows.
This wide fencerow was created when my husband wanted to improve the deteriorating fence around our 10-acre pasture. By leaving the old fence standing and constructing a new fence further into the meadow, he saved work and also created habitat for other species. We’ve planted a variety of trees between these fences and call this 10-foot wide strip a “linear forest.”
It was 11 years ago that we planted this linear forest with seedlings from our local County Extension Office. They are now ten to twenty feet tall and include wild cherry, crabapple, oak, white pine, persimmon, blue spruce, white ash, hawthorn and butternut. Birds and mammals have also contributed more variety such as black walnut, hickory and hazelnut. The fencerow and its underlying shrubbery now extend from one neighbor’s woods to the neighboring field on the other side of our meadow.
Besides the many advantages this fencerow provides to wildlife, the soil and our cows, it also delights us to have many other species join us on our farm. Although the number of songbirds has diminished in recent decades, we’ve seen or heard bobwhite, brown thrashers, cardinals, goldfinch, mocking birds, cat birds, bobolinks, and pheasants. It’s fun to see a box turtle emerge from the undergrowth and discover rabbit and vole tracks in the snow. We might not cherish the voles and mice if we didn’t also see hawks and owls that depend on these rodents for their food.
It’s true that our Dorking chickens and Narragansett turkeys don’t benefit from having more fox, mink, raccoon and opossums in the neighborhood. But we tuck the poultry in each evening and feel good about having habitat that makes it possible for other species to survive.
Finally, our orchard and garden also benefit from having hazelnuts and blackberries along their fences. These plants provide habitat for songbirds which gather hundreds of harmful caterpillars to feed their offspring. That sure beats poisoning our food with insecticides and also provides us with close contact with these beautiful birds. I enjoyed being scolded by brown thrasher fledglings when picking blackberries last summer, and don’t mind sharing some fruit for the pleasure of their company.
We may not be able to influence large farmers to return to the benefits of fencerows and hedgerows, but that doesn’t stop each of us from planting along our backyard fences, pastures or fields. The surrounding soil, water, wildlife and we humans all benefit when we do.
Mary Lou Shaw is a retired family practitioner who emphasized preventive medicine, is now homesteading with her husband in Ohio. Besides growing their own food, the pair help preserve genetics and knowledge needed by others to foster rare breeds. They have a large garden and orchard, Dorking chickens, Narragansett turkeys, Dutch Belted cows and bees. Buy Mary Lou’s book, Growing Local Food, through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482. Read all of Mary Lou's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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