PART II – HAYFIELDS AND GRASSLAND BIRDS
At the recent 2016 Crieff Hills conference center annual meeting of the staff and Board of Directors, there was a unanimous endorsement for the initiative to, ‘Sustain the environment and engage the community’. In response to this initiative, 55 acres of cultivated land at Crieff Hills that is currently farmed for field corn and soybeans will be shifted into grassland and hay production.
‘In shifting away from these nitrogen and pesticide intensive annual row crops, we will reduce the impact on local and downstream environments. Other benefits that we look forward to is the return of grassland birds such as the Bobolink and Meadowlark as well as the improved health of our honey bees.’
Lawrence Pentelow manager at Crieff Hills conference center
By converting this acreage to a grassland, we are kicking the door open for a big venture. Let me explain.
Changing agricultural practices have resulted in decreases in the amount of land being used for pasture and hay fields. For example, while cropland in Ontario has increased by more than 111,000 ha since 1996, pasture areas have decreased by 4,000 ha. Many of Ontario’s birds are becoming scarcer, but the species that depend on grasslands for their habitat are at special risk. Populations of Bobolinks, for example, have declined by 88% over the past 40 years. These grassland species depend on hay and pasture fields, together with remnants of native prairie and alvars.
Over the past 100 years, 95% of the North American prairie has been converted to agricultural use. At the same time our prairies were ‘being tamed’ by European settlers the forests of Ontario were being felled to promote agriculture. Remarkably, the Bobolink shifted its main breeding area from the western prairies to the new hay fields being created in Ontario. Up till the mid 1980’s, Bobolinks had adapted well to the meadows and fields of southern and central Ontario. In fact, 1/5 of the world’s Bobolink population resided here.
It is sad to think this remarkable bird survived the destruction and fragmentation of its original western prairie habitat only to become dependent on man’s pastures and hay fields. With changing agricultural practices, that is, more frequent and earlier haying, the Bobolinks are being devastated. Most hay fields are harvested during the month of June, when nutrient and protein values of the grasses are at their peak.
Unfortunately, Bobolinks hatch from their ground nest between June 7 – June 20. The hatch lings are incapable of sustainable flight until 16 days old. This means that the hatch lings are vulnerable to nest disturbances until the first week of July. Bobolink nests suffer 96% mortality at hay cutting time. The young are often crushed by machinery or exposed to predators of gulls and crows once the protective grass cover is removed.
Both Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks are now protected as Threatened species under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act. Barn swallows, which often forage for insects over pastures and hay fields, have the same designation.
So how does Crieff fit into the recovery program? The beauty of this hayfield venture is our versatility. The converted fields fill many guidelines for grassland bird recovery. Bobolinks and some other grassland birds are ‘area sensitive’ which means that they won’t nest in small fields. Patches of grassland should be at least 4 ha (10 ac) in size. Square fields are better than long narrow patches, which have a large amount of edge with adjacent woodlands or other habitats. These edges provide travel routes for predators such as foxes or skunks. The converted fields at Crieff fit this ‘area sensitive’ criteria.
But having attractive fields for grassland birds to nest in, is only part of the equation. The biggest component to the equation of successful grassland bird nesting is timing of haying.
There must be 65 days between first and second cuts of hay in order for the Bobolinks to fledge successfully. At the moment, we are finalizing the haying schedule with Bird Studies Canada.
But I truly feel the greatest asset of this grassland venture is leadership. Crieff Hills can actively demonstrate that good agricultural practices do not need to be at cross purposes to good land stewardship practices. Think about it. Two-thirds of the world’s productive land is farmed. This means all farmers are stewards of clean air, clean water, the land and the wildlife.
So be sure to visit Crieff this spring to view our fields and be sure to tell us of all your bird sightings. Hopefully, we will hear that bubbly call of the Bobolink returning to the fields this spring.