By Michael C. Ryan, OCJ field reporter
For years, a local preferred deer hunting spot was in a thin woodlot overlooking a snarled fencerow and deep agricultural drainage ditches. Hunters perched in a tree stand 15 feet above this south-central Ohio farmscape have witnessed firsthand nearly every wild mammal in the Buckeye state, as well as scores of bird species. The many whitetails that have fallen to broadheads along the fences and ditches testify to the key role these often-overgrown field borders play as travel corridors and cover. And the deer only tell a small part of the story.
Part of the pleasure of the hunt is not simply the thrill of the kill, but the opportunity for chance encounters with a variety of animals among the knotted mats of multiflora rose, honeysuckle, and hedge apple trees that congregate along fencerows and ditches. These sightings range from the mundane and average to the unique and awe-inspiring. All of the typical, expected varmints and lesser beings show up. The lowly and despised enemies of all farms — groundhogs and coons — make frequent appearances, as do fox, gray, and red jimmy squirrels, opossums, rabbits, chipmunks, and every native songbird populating the central portion of the state. On the other hand, some of the sights witnessed are truly exceptional, more so because of the personal nature of them. With no one else around to share these late fall and winter moments on remote farm lands, they are all one’s own.
Mink and muskrats slink in and out of the drainage ditch at the first light of the day. A dull, slow morning’s hunt is livened when a barn owl swoops out of nowhere and scoops a fox squirrel from the neighboring tree beside. Coyotes yap. Three sets of glowing eyes bobbing about beneath the stand in the predawn reveal themselves to be red fox scouring the countryside for a morning meal. They come up empty as a cock pheasant flushes wild from out of the fencerow. Woodcock fly down at dawn from their night migrations to rest and probe for
worms in the dogwoods and alders. And the chickadees that were just moments ago flitting about, chirping in the bare brush, are suddenly silent and timid as the resident red tail hawk alights nearby, watching for a fatal miscue.
But looking out over the land that he has farmed his entire life, David Neeley observes that the complexion of the agricultural scene has changed dramatically over the past decades. In the era when small farms with a diversity of crop and livestock investments dotted the landscape and widespread cattle operations abounded, fencerows dividing fields were a necessity, but have largely faded into obscurity.
“On a family farm of 75 to 100 acres, you would have a couple of dairy cows, a pig or two, some chickens, and you would maybe put in some field corn, a field of straw for animal bedding, and one [field] for hay to feed your livestock,” Neeley recollects.
The farmer needed to put in fencerows to divide up his property for these various endeavors. However, this is no longer the case. Neeley, who farms 500 acres of land in Fairfield County with his son, Brian, comments that with the disappearance of many cattle outfits and the disappearance of the small-scale, self-sufficient family farm of the early twentieth century, the need for fencerows has also vanished.
From a crop production standpoint, the elimination of fencerows and natural drainage systems make sense. Through the removal of fencerows and expansive, effective, and efficient tiling of fields, more usable, productive land is opened up. With the exception of fences that mark boundary lines and those in his cattle pastures, there isn’t a single fencerow on the properties that Neeley farms.
Fewer fencerows and lowlands to maneuver around equal more crops and profits and less time wasted. As Neeley jokes, “[My buddy] would be happy if there weren’t a tree left standing on his entire property.”
However, the same trees and fencerows that offer obstacles to modern agriculture also perform very important functions for the wildlife in Ohio, especially in areas of heavy agriculture where there is limited habitat and cover for wild creatures. The labyrinth-like overgrowth of old fencerows, while a nuisance to crop producers, represent thin bands of wildness that serve as a home to a bevy of Ohio’s native animal inhabitants.
Retired Ohio Department of Natural Resources Assistant Law administrator Kevin O’Dell warns that “habitat loss is the greatest threat” to the diversity of wildlife that call farm fields home and add beauty to our landscape. Though the elimination of old fencerows certainly does not disrupt on the scale of suburban sprawl and urban population growth, it does take away important habitat that serves a multitude of uses for wild creatures in Ohio.
O’Dell highlights several invaluable uses these brambly lines of thicket and trees have for animals. They are travel corridors serving as highways between larger areas of cover. They provide concealment and protection from predation. There are forage opportunities provided by plants growing in these borderlands. Some animals, such as ring-necked pheasant, prefer field border and fencerows as nesting areas. Additionally, they can also supply windbreaks for animals in the winter, O’Dell said.
Efficiency and productivity in farming practices are of utmost importance and skilled tiling projects will inevitably lead to the further disappearance of fencerows from agricultural ecosystems. But from a conservation standpoint, it is, however, important to acknowledge and understand the role these borderlands play, so as to work to maintain a balance for all aspects of our natural environment.
Author Henry Thoreau, one of the great philosophers of the American landscape, once wrote “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” He does not see our salvation in wilderness, or in the city, or the suburbs. Rather, Thoreau embraced a productive agrarian scene that nonetheless maintained space for wildness to flourish on the edges, much like what the tangled, oft overlooked fencerows of the Midwestern countryside provide.