Establishing Field Borders to Improve Wildlife Habitat

Well established field borders are wonderful places for wildlife. Some animals are full-time residents of field borders. To others, field borders are temporary havens for loafing, nesting, escape from enemies, or for riding out a storm. A field border can also serve as a pantry. Many the most desirable border plants including shrubs, brambles and vines are often abundant food producers.

Field borders should be located along woodland edges, fence rows and drainages wherever grazing is not practiced or planned, to create a vegetative transition between other types of cover. Such transitions, and the diversity provided, are much more attractive to wildlife than the abrupt change that often occurs, for example, between field and forest. Field borders take up relatively little in total acreage. Even when located along agricultural field edges, if borders adjoin woodland, little productivity is lost since typically crop yield is low near forest edges.

Borders should consist primarily of woody plants of low to intermediate height. Their width should be at least 30 feet. The greater the length, the better. The width, length and density of field borders, must be sufficient to make animals feel secure or they will receive little use. Skimpy borders are easily hunted by predators and provide little protection from weather.

Field borders can be established using any of the following methods:

  1. When next to woodland, cut all trees nearest the field edge and allow the remaining vegetation to grow into the shrubby or brushy stage;
  2. allow natural vegetation to encroach into the field and grow undisturbed until reaching the desirable stage; or
  3. plant nursery grown shrubs (many are available from VA Dept. of Forestry).

Once well established, borders should be maintained by periodically removing undesirable, invading trees as they begin to take over or shade out low-growing plants.

Borders created by cutting back forest edge have the advantage of not reducing the amount of land that is already open. This may be important if the open area is small or is used for crop production. Large trees can be marked for firewood. Small trees and laps can be used to make brush piles. Persimmon, black gum, sassafras, American dogwood and other obvious fruit producers should be left standing. In a year or two after cutting, ingrowing plants will make a dense, attractive border.

Where the loss of open land is not a major concern, a border can also be established by allowing naturally occurring plants to invade and encroach into existing open edges. The establishment of field borders using this practice requires the least expense and labor. However, if a heavy sod is already established, this should be destroyed by plowing, discing, or by the use of an herbicide. This will speed-up the invasion of the more desirable “border plants.”

If natural borders seem undesirable (perhaps from an aesthetic standpoint), nursery grown shrubs provide an option and the results are more reliable. Shrubs can be selected that are known producers of abundant and preferred wildlife food. Shrub honeysuckles, rem red and tartarian; shrub dogwoods, silky, red osier, and gray; American dogwood and shrub lespedeza (VA-70) are good choices.

The final touch to any border is the establishment of a herbaceous (nonwoody) strip along the open side. This may not be necessary, if the opening has recently, or is currently being tilled. Otherwise, a 10-20 foot wide strip can be plowed and/or disced, and allowed to remain fallow or seeded. Either way, the removal of old vegetation and plant litter, and creation of new herbaceous growth will be of particular value to small animals including quail and rabbits. If seeding, the use of a mixture of warm-season grasses, a mixture of orchard grass and ladino clover, Korean or kobe lespedeza, or one of the locally well suited agricultural grains will provide food and cover for a variety of wildlife. Herbaceous strips normally require reworking every third year.

Borders need not completely rim every field or fringe every fence, drainage or wood line. Yet, they should be employed to the greatest extent possible by those who wish to attract wildlife. Few management practices can offer wildlife more than well located, well established field borders.