Habitat Maintenance: Mowing the Meadow
We own 80 acres of southeastern Ohio woodland, orchard, and meadow. The woodland is recovering from decades of logging and livestock over-grazing. The orchard is too old to produce meaningful fruit (so we're letting it die a meaningful death). And the meadow is trying its level best to turn into future woodland. Maintaining the woodland is not hard. We post it against hunters (this reduces the number of hunters using our land), we tell the loggers to buzz off, and we watch the trees grow far beyond their relatives on most neighboring tracts of land.
To maintain the orchard, we watch the apple trees die and decay, cut up the trees that fall across the paths, and harvest the raspberries and morel mushrooms when they appear. This spring I noticed that most of our ash trees are dead—making me wonder if we now host the emerald ash borer.
Maintaining the meadow takes more time, effort, and machinery. It is about 10 acres of rolling grass, wildflower, weeds, saplings, and shrubs. We do our best to keep it open and to fight off the exotics that try to take over. So far we're losing the battle with the Japanese honeysuckle, but winning against the pampas grass, hawthorn, and Russian olive. I mow three paths through the meadow: upper, middle, and lower and we maintain nest boxes along them for bluebirds, tree swallows, and other cavity nesters.
I also have to mow the rest of the meadow periodically to keep it from getting too woody. To accomplish this I have an old Massey Ferguson 135 tractor, slightly older than I am, with a bush-hog-style mowing deck. It took me a while to get used to this tractor—my second one after my 1953 Massey TO-35 gave up the ghost two years ago. This one is more powerful, and thankfully, more reliable.
Each spring I get the tractor running in late March to mow the meadow. It's a seasonal race to get this done before the grassland-nesting birds are back. Once we hear the first peents of the male woodcock, we know the clock is ticking: I'll need to get the tractor running and the woodiest parts of the meadow mowed. If I wait too long or if the weather is too wet on the days I am home and free, or if the tractor won't start, the birds might start nesting and them I won't be able to mow until fall, when nesting is done.
Among the species that nest in our meadow or along the weedy, brushy edges are prairie warbler, blue-winged warbler, song sparrow, field sparrow, chipping sparrow, indigo bunting, gray catbird, brown thrasher, American woodcock, northern cardinal, eastern bluebird, tree swallow, and common yellowthroat. At one point, when the meadow was grazed (before we owned this land) there were probably eastern meadowlarks and grasshopper sparrows nesting here. Now the surrounding woods are too big. The meadowlarks come and look around, but they never stay to nest.
Some years I just mow half of the meadow, letting the other half grow out a bit. But for the past few years, the sapling stubs and shrub bits from the previous year's mowing have grown so fast (I guess because they already have root systems) that by fall the meadow looks like an old neglected pasture with waist-high trees rising above the goldenrod, bluestem grass, and ironweed.
On Saturday, April 4, the day dawned clear and sunny, if a little cold. I was just getting over a bad cold myself but I knew I needed to get some of the meadow mowing done. I put on my boots, old jeans, work shirt and barn jacket and went out to the garage to begin wrestling with the tractor. I greased all the joints on the tractor with my grease gun, check the fluid levels, tire pressure, and the three-point hitch, then I climbed aboard and turned the key. To my utter shock, the tractor burst into life, rising to a perfect roar as I pushed in the choke and raised the throttle. I raised the mowing deck to transport level and trundled out of the garage toward the meadow.
Looking at our meadow I noticed that there were sumac saplings everywhere. Sumac is native and a great wildlife food source in winter. It grows incredibly fast, too. Every single sumac stalk was bitten off at a height of about four feet, evidence that our white-tailed deer population had a hard winter if they needed to eat the tips of sumac saplings. The rest of the meadow's plant community was a twiggy, thorny stew of multiflora rose (exotic), Virginia pine, deciduous tree saplings (oak, maple, poplar, ash, you name it), grasses both native and exotic, weeds and wildflowers—especially the aforementioned goldenrod, et al.
I lowered the deck, engaged the power take-off and the mowing bladed started their whirring song. As I lifted my foot off the clutch, the engine faltered for a second until it gathered the additional power it needed. I rattled the engine into first gear, the gear speed into H for high, and I was off, out the middle meadow path, slaying and laying low anything taller than four inches that was in my path.
I am not a destructive person, but I do enjoy the feeling of well-used machinery applied to a large job. And I get a bit of "Zenning-out" time when I mow on the tractor. I wear gloves and hearing and eye protection always. And I try to watch carefully for precious plants, anthills, woodchuck holes, fallen trees, box turtles, rabbit nests, black snakes, nesting birds, cowering fawns, lost whiffle balls, and anything else that should not be mowed. When the coast is clear, I get some pretty good thinking done on my tractor.
More about this topic tomorrow.