Burn season has officially begun here at Virginia Forestry and Wildlife. We were able to sneak in a field burn just before the snow started falling on Friday night. This particular burn is part of a quail habitat restoration project that we are working on in the northern Piedmont. The 30 acre field has begun its transformation from a recently abandoned fescue pasture to quality wildlife habitat. Tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea) is a cool season pasture grass introduced from Europe and is one of the most common species seen across rural Virginia. Although it makes a beautiful blanket of green in the spring and fall, fescue has had disastrous impacts on our native wildlife, including Northern bobwhite “quail.” By forming dense mats of vegetation, fescue blocks the growth of other plants (one reason it is so popular in pastures) and forms a monoculture of grass. Quail chicks are unable to run through this dense grass and chase insects. Also, there are few insects to be found as no flowers or broadleaf forbs are typically found. There are very few things that like fescue in our natural world. Walk across a fescue pasture and insects are tough to find let alone birds like quail or even rabbits. The first step in bringing wildlife back to rural Virginia is to eliminate this noxious weed. In the fall of 2011 we sprayed the fescue in this 30 acre field using a glyphosate based herbicide.
Our recent prescribed burn removed the dead vegetation, helped control invading woody plants and added nutrients back to the soil. This coming spring there will be a nice, clean, fertile seedbed ready to plant our native grass, forb and wildflower mix. We also plan to plant shrubs and nut and fruit bearing trees in certain areas to further enhance diversity. Within a few years this former fescue pasture will be a thriving wildlife haven full of pollinating insects, songbirds and with a little luck, whistling quail. White-tailed deer and wild turkey will be more frequent visitors of the property to take advantage of the excellent cover for fawning/nesting and the diverse food resources that currently do not exist on the farm. Another recipient of this restoration project will be the resident barn owl that currently uses the old barn. With the creation of the native meadow, there will be a significant increase in deer mice, meadow voles and short-tailed shrews which are preferred foods of the barn owl.