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Conservation Spotlight: Fencerow Habitat

Updated: Mar 24

Bobwhite quail are in trouble. Nationwide, the species is on the perilous brink of collapse, and unfortunately, its numbers have been on the decline for over a hundred years. In areas where populations have always been stable—areas like the Texas Rolling Plains—the sudden and dramatic quail decline is alarming.


Bobwhite quail are in trouble. Nationwide, the species is on the perilous brink of collapse, and unfortunately, its numbers have been on the decline for over a hundred years. In areas where populations have always been stable—areas like the Texas Rolling Plains—the sudden and dramatic quail decline is alarming.
Bobwhite quail perched atop a fencepost.

Canon 20d camera, Canon 70-200mm f2.8L lens, 1/3200 sec. @ f2.8, ISO 200


 

In early spring and summer of each year, however, the quail around Childress, Texas, seems to spring from the scrublands. On any given morning, I can drive around the land's permitter and count a few male bobwhites calling from the tops of old cedar fence posts that I left intact when I bought the property. I can find even more in the grown-up edges along the fences. Instinctively, the quail knows what I know: the rough edges of my property - the unmoved ditches and the grown-up patches along my fence is a food and cover-rich oasis that attracts the bobwhites and other wildlife.


In contemporary agriculture, plowing cropland to the edges of the property line is a common practice among growers. It is also common for livestock ranchers in areas with intensively managed, improved rangelands to keep fence rows clean from weeds and brush. 


Historically, however, fencerows were often allowed to grow up. A generation and beyond ago, equipment was more cumbersome, and in places like where I grew up in Fannin County, herbicide use was sparse. Therefore, grasses, forbs, and some shrubs were more common along cross and perimeter fencing on a property. As agricultural practices became more efficient and pastures became monocultural grazing paddocks, the food and cover plants on the margins disappeared. With it, some grassland wildlife, like the small coveys of quail that hung on in meager numbers, disappeared. Their decline in Northeast Texas parallels various studies across the nation that link the decline of bobwhite quail with the decline in fencerow habitat.


Bobwhite quail are in trouble. Nationwide, the species is on the perilous brink of collapse, and unfortunately, its numbers have been on the decline for over a hundred years. In areas where populations have always been stable—areas like the Texas Rolling Plains—the sudden and dramatic quail decline is alarming.
Weedy and unkempt fencerows can proovide valuable wildlife habitat.

Canon 5d Mark II camera, Canon 16-35mm f2.8L lens, 1/500 sec. @ f4.5, ISO 640


 

While other factors may be at play, loss of habitat is generally recognized as one of the critical reasons for the decline of quail and other grassland bird species. In reality, a clean fencerow provides no benefit for wildlife.


The Benefits 


"Weedy fencerows serve as travel corridors for species like bobwhites and pheasants. Also, they sometimes provide the "last" substantial cover between more permanent cover such as rangelands and a food source like croplands. As such, they may serve as staging areas for birds entering and exiting crop fields," says Dale Rollins, Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist (retired), Director of Rolling Plains Quail Research Foundation, and an ardent student of quail.


While numbers vary by locations, numerous species of vertebrates and invertabrates commonly use these corridors of successional habitat. Not only do the rough and ragged fencerow edges provide cover for small animals and birds, but they are also rich in food plants for wildlife - especially if you plant and propagate the fencerows. Depending on the part of the state you are in, valuable food plants such as wild plum, bundleflower, honeysuckle, greenbriar, and vine mesquite are commonly found growing.


Bobwhite quail are in trouble. Nationwide, the species is on the perilous brink of collapse, and unfortunately, its numbers have been on the decline for over a hundred years. In areas where populations have always been stable—areas like the Texas Rolling Plains—the sudden and dramatic quail decline is alarming.
Jumping spider waiting on prey.

Canon 1d Mark IV camera, Canon 70-200mm f2.8L lens with extension tubes, 1/640 sec. @ f5, ISO 800


 

"Some of the more common weeds encountered in fencerows (e.g., kochia, Russian thistle, careless weeds) are great seed and insect producers for bobwhites. Hence, they provide both cover and food," adds Rollins.


On my small place, it's not usual to see quail, cottontail rabbits, cardinals, and other songbirds and mammals hanging out along the fencerows. Deer use them as a secure travel corridor between their bedding and feeding areas.


The best fence rows and adjacent grown-up ditches grow a variety of plants, such as shrubs, forbs, and grasses. Once established, the birds and wildlife that utilize these habitat corridors help propagate the habitat.


Bobwhite quail are in trouble. Nationwide, the species is on the perilous brink of collapse, and unfortunately, its numbers have been on the decline for over a hundred years. In areas where populations have always been stable—areas like the Texas Rolling Plains—the sudden and dramatic quail decline is alarming.
A western meadowlark perched atop a fencepost.

Shot on film. EXIF information is unavailable.

 

"In rangeland situations "weedy fencerows" are usually "brush fencerows," says Rollins, "In these situations, brush species like hackberry and agarito establish in the fencerows because birds perching on the fences deposit seeds through their droppings. Such brush fencerows can provide excellent screening and escape cover for bobwhites. However, such brush fencerows are often targeted for control due to concerns that they damage the fences that produced them."


Common Sense Practices


While it's a common practice to clean out fence rows, for land managers wanting to reestablish them with food and cover for wildlife, the United States Department of Agriculture recommends that the fencerows be 40 - 50 feet wide and consist of various plants. While the width seems insignificant, for every quarter mile of grown-up fence row that's fifty feet wide adds about an acre and a half of habitat.


If clean fences are a must, then fenceless "fencerows" are quickly established with plantings parallel to fencerows. These artificial fencerows provide the same habitat benefit but also allow landowners to keep their fences clean for maintenance.  



Bobwhite quail are in trouble. Nationwide, the species is on the perilous brink of collapse, and unfortunately, its numbers have been on the decline for over a hundred years. In areas where populations have always been stable—areas like the Texas Rolling Plains—the sudden and dramatic quail decline is alarming.
Rio Grande turkey gobbling.

Canon 1d Mark IIn camera, Canon 500mm f4L lens, 1/400 sec. @ f4, ISO 640


 

Another practice around agricultural fields is to leave a strip of unharvested crops or uncut hay to serve as cover and feed for wildlife. While 10 feet wide is the recommended minimum, twenty to thirty feet wide is a good compromise that only sacrifices less than an acre of yield for every quarter of a linear mile.


For hay fields on our place, we often leave narrow strips of uncut forage around the field's margins and through the middle of the field. For every six or eight rows cut, one is left standing. By traditional measures, the field looks rough and unkempt once the hay is removed. However, small wildlife species and predators seem to enjoy it.


In the past, I've planted strips of milo or sunflowers in a makeshift firebreak. As the summer progresses, the temporary fencerow habitat grows to provide cover for wildlife and green browse for deer, and once the crops mature, the seeds provide a winter food source for quail and other birds as they slowly drop from their heads onto the ground. In addition, the dead stalks are good thermal cover for ground-dwelling animals.


Bobwhite quail are in trouble. Nationwide, the species is on the perilous brink of collapse, and unfortunately, its numbers have been on the decline for over a hundred years. In areas where populations have always been stable—areas like the Texas Rolling Plains—the sudden and dramatic quail decline is alarming.
Sunflowers grown to provide wildlife cover and food.

Canon 5d Mark II camera, Canon 70-200mm f2.8L lens, 1/5000 sec. @ f2.8, ISO 800


 

Fencerow and cropland strips are an effective habitat management technique for both small and big wildlife species. They are man-made habitat connectors in which Mother Nature fills in the gaps with plants and shrubs - in the same vein as when ships are sunk to create artificial reefs. Whether the property is big or small, adding these habitat edges is a cost-effective way to promote habitat diversity on your property. 

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4 Comments


excellent

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Thank you, Ken.

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Russell,

Thank you for the great lesson! I learned many new things and loved it all.

Tina Sparger-Buice

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Thanks for taking the time to read!

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