Managing Woodland Edges for Ecological and Aesthetic Interest
As the population of individual land owners increases, more and more forests are divided into separate sections, a process termed fragmentation. Often this results in large expanses of forests being physically separated into numerous woodlots. One major result of this trend is a dramatic increase in woodlot/forest edges, an edge being where two different habitats abruptly meet. Throughout our driftless region, we readily see abrupt edges between meadows and woodlots or between agricultural fields and woodlots. Interestingly, these edges of our woods have unique and important traits and the way they are managed can influence how your woodlot appears and what goes on in our woodlots.
One question you may ask is what constitutes the ‘edge’ of a woodlot. Obviously, it is a transition zone between the woodlot and some other habitat or land use that looks very different. In part, these visual differences are a result of the edge communities having quite different plant and wildlife populations inhabiting them than what is seen in the woods. When you take a walk through the edge region for about 50 feet and into the depths of your woods, you all have noticed a change from warmer and brighter conditions into the dark, cool woods. In addition, the edge are will have a more diverse and dense population of plants and animals. For example, some wildlife that will congregate in the edge areas includes pheasants, ruffed grouse, quail, turkeys, and rabbits. Some of our song birds such as song sparrows, gray catbirds, cardinals, brown thrashers, and flickers prefer edges while others such as thrushes, red breasted grosbeaks, and many warblers like the deep woods. If such traits of your woodlot are important to you, then how one manages the edge community may be as important as how you manage the lumber trees in the woods.
In general, edges that are the most visually aesthetic to us and are the most biologically active tend to change more gradually to the deep woods habitat. That is, edges that suddenly change to the lumber tree habitat are generally not as desirable as those that slowly change.
If this theme melds well with your land management goals, there are a number of approaches to managing edge communities that will maximize their beneficial effects. These approaches include encouraging specific natural establishment, planting enhancement, and selective clearing. In later woodland tips, we will explore these approaches with emphasis on one of the easiest tools to use, encouraging specific shrub communities in edge management.