Savanna - Prairie - Oak Openings
In 1983 we purchased 80 acres of wetlands, rocky agricultural land, degraded woods, and one 7 acre natural pond. Six years later we added an adjacent 20 acres of cattail marsh and sedge meadow rimmed with a few ancient bur oaks. Then the work began but also the joy of discovery and accomplishment.
More than a century of farming had erased the ground cover of the historic oak openings. Hilltop meadows of pasque flower, blazing star, lead plant, little bluestem, and prairie drop seed were replaced by an overgrazed mix of non-native cool season grasses and biennial weeds like bull thistle, which cattle don’t eat. Mesic areas on the lower portions of the hills that once supported Indian grass, cord grass and prairie dock lost most native plants to the plow. The remaining bur oaks with their low wide-spreading limbs were engulfed by an understory of fire intolerant and shade tolerant trees and shrubs such as eastern red cedar, box elder, black locust, black cherry, and European buckthorn. Many seasonal wetlands that once were meadows of tussock sedge and cord grass became monotypes of nonnative reed canary grass.
Though most of the historical oak openings have been degraded, there are still opportunities for restoration of this community. On Prairiehill Farm much of the north face of the hill was only grazed because it was too steep and rocky for cultivation. Fortunately, some native plant species associated with oak openings can persist through cycles of cattle grazing and canopy closure. Once cattle were removed in 1984, remnant native grasses and forbs began to appear in the former pastureland. Big bluestem, Indian grass, and needle grass first appeared along stone fence lines. Here they persisted out of reach of cattle and protected from the plow. Some native forbs persisted though a century of grazing. The most successful were those with small non-succulent leaves such as thimbleweed, and those that grow during the cool season and are dormant in summer, such as prairie violet.
Removal of red cedar and black cherry along with the addition of prescribed fire in 1988 hastened the spread of native plants from stone fence lines and other refugia. Fire may also have stimulated germination in the seed bank. After 38 years, 110 species of remnant native forbs, grasses and sedges have been identified and an additional 70 species have been introduced.
In addition to restoration, reconstruction of savanna on 25 acres of former cropland began in 1996, and we began reclaiming the sedge meadow around the pond in 2000. Practices used to re-establish forbs and grasses on former cropland include herbicide applications, broadcast and no-till drill seeding of local genotypes, mowing, and burning. In some plantings over 80 forbs and grasses were seeded. Collectively, 55 acres of restored and reconstructed savanna are maintained in eight management units. For additional information, see PrairiehillFarmBackground.
We watched our prairies mature while the first subdivision in the Town of Buffalo appeared a mile and a half away on land that we had at one time dreamed of owning. We had no heirs. Would this be the fate of our land too? In December 2010 we signed a conservation agreement, permanently protecting all 100 acres while reserving the right to develop a single family home on a portion of the land.
PLANS FOR THE FUTURE: Undecided. A sale is likely - but not quite yet.