Ask the Conservancy: Managed Meadow walk

Thu, 10/04/2018 - 3:00pm
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The following was submitted to The Block Island Times by The Block Island Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy:

Ask the Conservancy: Managed Meadow — in-the-field walk is Monday, October 8, at 10 a.m.

During the upcoming years we at the Block Island Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy plan to develop a series of outreach activities that will offer advice and assistance to landowners that will help them make thoughtful land management decisions on their property that, in turn, will benefit the whole island’s ecosystem. These activities will include everything from occasional articles in The Block Island Times, to walks on example properties, to advising about and identifying invasive and native plant species.

Most especially, we welcome the opportunity to speak with you about your property “housekeeping”. Whether you have questions, need help with species identification or research, or just want feedback and an opportunity to discuss options and approaches to best steward your property, please give us a call or send an email. (Clair Stover — (860) 808-9867 / stover@biconservancy.org, or Kim Gaffett — (401) 595-7055 / kim.gaffett@tnc.org).

Everyone — regardless of how small an area we oversee — can make a difference and have a role to play in keeping our Block Island beautiful and ecologically diverse. Read on for this first installment about Block Island’s fields and join us next Monday for our first guided walk through the fields at the Martin Property.

Ask the Conservancy: #1 What to do with the back forty?

Is your back forty a patch of un-mown lawn? A garden in need of weeding? Or, perhaps it is a grassy meadow blooming seasonally with wildflowers and grasses: daisies, black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s Lace, common milkweed, goldenrods, asters, tufts of switchgrass, and purple love grass. Or, is it an old field – once agricultural, but now characterized by a mix of grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and small trees, such as Timothy grass, chicory, shad and arrowwood? Are there wet spots with sedges, swamp azalea, high-bush blueberry, and swamp maples? Or, is your back forty a tangled bramble of multiflora rose, bittersweet, Japanese knotweed, white poplar, or worse, black swallow-wort?

Whether it is the back forty, the front lot, or the side yard, many Block Island properties have excess acreage that is not a mowed yard. These habitats — whether a small fringe along the driveway, a wet corner in a house lot, or a large stonewall-enclosed field — provide wonderful areas for wildlife. These habitats and ecosystems are the reason that the island is home to many special critters and plants, including: the Block Island meadow vole, American burying beetle, northern blazing star, button bush, and the only nesting sites in Rhode Island for marsh hawk (northern harrier).

However, grasslands, meadows and fens, old fields, un-mowed lawn, and shrub lands will all transition towards dense tangles if they are not managed with occasional mowing, or other attempts to control invasive species. But, when to mow to best achieve vegetation control and wildlife protection can be hard to determine.

Decisions about how, and when, to actively manage your land can often benefit from local examples and advice. So, we turn to the Martin Property, a 10-acre lot found in the northwest corner of the intersection of West Side Rd. and Old Mill Rd. This property contains “old field habitat”, which is created when agricultural pursuits are abandoned and the field’s plant life is allowed to regenerate naturally. Block Island’s old field habitats are best identified right now, from late summer through mid-fall, while their diagnostic goldenrods and asters are in full bloom. Drive around the island and you may be surprised to see how much of the island’s open space is old field.

Old fields require regular disturbance to prevent woody shrubs, like bayberry and shad, from overtaking the area. At the Martin Property, mowing of the fields occurs in the late winter to early spring. Because old fields are mowed just once a year, the grasses and wildflowers are able to grow tall, flower, and set seed, providing Block Island’s wildlife — specifically butterflies, bees, birds, and small mammals — with ample food and cover. There’s always something to see here. In the early spring just after the mowing, you can find American woodcocks along the edges of the stonewalls and shrubs getting ready to begin their mating rituals. Throughout the summer, you’ll see bees and butterflies pollinating flowers, orb-weaver spiders stringing their webs between the tall grass stems, and song sparrows foraging for seeds and insects to bring back to their nests. In the fall, falcons and hawks soar over the fields looking for mice and meadow voles. And through the winter, birds like cardinals and white-throated sparrows find leftover seeds that sustain them in the cold months.

Every property must be managed with consideration of its unique features to make each patch of Block Island’s ecosystems function best. The Martin Property is no different and its maintenance regime is multi-faceted to achieve the ecologic goals outlined above, as well as cultural and invasive control ones. Mowing along the stonewalls throughout the growing season supports the Block Island Conservancy’s desire to provide public walking access and showcasing the island’s iconic stone walls. Additionally, the southwest corner is continuously mown throughout the spring and summer to prevent the invasive plant, Japanese knotweed, from spreading throughout the fields. By working each year to physically remove the knotweed, the Block Island Conservancy hopes to eventually remove the species without the use of toxic herbicides.

You too can make your patch of Block Island thrive and support plants and wildlife. You don’t need to have much area to make a difference. Start by planting native wildflowers, allowing a stand of seedy grasses to grow up in the late summer, or pulling out invading plants. Together, our efforts add up. Call us if you want help coming up with a plan for your property.

So, welcome to our first pair of offerings. In addition to this article, please join us October 8th at 10 a.m. for a walk to observe and discuss the mowing/management strategies being used by the Block Island Conservancy at the Martin Property. Meet at the intersection of West Side and Old Mill Roads. —by Clair Stover (BIC’s Executive Director) and Kim Gaffett (TNC’s OVF Naturalist)