Shrubby Fencerows make good Neighbors

By Rod Doolen | May 2, 1998
From Missouri Conservationist: May 1998

Wildlife habitat-the term brings to mind forests, river bottoms, prairies, openings, edges, cropfields and other rich, fertile environments. But, unless you're a hunter, you probably wouldn't think about fencerows.Hunters know that those narrow, overgrown strips bordering fields draw game like magnets. You could crisscross a 40-acre field and not spook a quail, rabbit, deer or squirrel. Scratch around the fencerow, though, and, comparatively speaking, you'll raise game like sparks from flint.

 If you have a shrubby fencerow on your property, the best thing you can do is to keep it intact. If you are a hobby farmer who would like more wildlife on your property, you can plan and plant fencerows. And even if you are just an urban homeowner with a yen for more wildlife in your yard, you can let a strip of your yard go wild.

When we're talking fencerows, by the way, we're not discussing strands of barbed wire or a stretch of stock fence with no grass beneath. A wildlife fencerow, which may or may not include an actual fence, is a natural border, a strip of forbs, shrubs and trees that can sometimes be too thick to walk through.

Fencerows are one of the most crucial habitats available to wildlife. These oases provide both shelter and food for a variety of animals, amphibians, reptiles and birds. Research tells us that fencerows are essential habitat to at least 18 species of vertebrates (critters with a backbone) and the preferred habitat of 76 other species.

Some of the more common wildlife associated with fencerows include fox squirrels, rabbits, woodchuck, red and gray fox, indigo buntings, cardinals, eastern bluebirds, red-headed woodpeckers, eastern screech owls, red tailed hawks, prairie king snakes, black rat snakes, five lined skinks and three-toed box turtles.

Most of these animals don't spend their entire lives in fencerows. Rather they use them as hiding, resting or feeding sites. If the cover is thick enough and the fencerow wide enough, they may also roost, bed or nest there.

In many cases, a fencerow is a sheltered connection between two larger areas of cover, a greenway that wildlife use for travel.

The attraction of a fencerow to wildlife varies according to the surrounding habitat, or lack of habitat. Fencerows draw more animals in heavily cropped or heavily grazed areas, because they provide the only available refuge and food.

On the other hand, fencerows in heavily forested areas that already contain plenty of woody and herbaceous cover may get little use. Prairie species may actually be disrupted by the trees in fencerows, for the original prairie habitat, in which they evolved, was vast and nearly treeless.

Generally, the best fencerows consist of a central row of large trees with a thick mixture of weeds, grasses and shrubs along either side. The large trees shade the ground beneath, preventing heavy growth of understory species and allowing easy movement within the fencerow. The outside cover keeps animals from being observed and provides a quick refuge from danger.

Fencerows often evolve naturally, as places inconvenient to plant, cut or plow revert to a wild condition. But fencerows can be planned and planted, as well.

A simple, attainable fencerow might start as your suburban backyard boundary. Instead of nipping and cleaning right up to the edge, let a strip grow naturally, add some hedge plants or shrubs and don't bother trying to keep weeds from the ground beneath. This "neglect," as your neighbors might call it, will draw in songbirds and wildlife for you to watch and enjoy.

Even if you have nothing to wall in or wall out, a strategically located fencerow will increase wildlife populations on almost any chunk of property.

Starting a fencerow from scratch is a long term project. Good escape and nesting cover can be produced within the first year, but a fencerow with fruit or nut bearing trees will be many years in the making.

If space is available, plan at least a 50-foot wide fencerow. This size allows for a 20-foot wide center strip of larger trees to serve as a travel lane. On both sides of the center strip, plant or develop a 5-foot wide shrub lane to provide cover and food sources. Outside of the shrub lane, plant a 10-foot wide strip of warm-season-grass.

This formula, or one similar to it, provides a good combination of brood rearing habitat, nesting and escape cover, as well as food sources.

For hobby farmers, starting a fencerow from scratch or bare soil requires planting the middle or large row of trees. Soft and hard mast trees should be included to provide a food source. White oak, post oak, pin oak, black oak and bur oak groups are good choices. Most of these species are available from nurseries.

Plant woody shrubs in the side strips to provide both cover and food. Hazel nut, dogwood, wild plum, sumac, aromatic sumac and blackberry work well and survive mowing or burning.

Warm-season grasses, such as little bluestem, big bluestem, Indian grass or switchgrass, will provide good cover for escape and nesting and will help screen the center portion of the fencerow. Little bluestem, big bluestem and Indian grass can be planted as a mixture. If switchgrass is used, it is best planted alone, because it will likely take over anyway, if used in a mixed planting.

You can make the fencerow even more attractive and useful to wildlife by placing brushpiles within the fencerow every 100 to 300 yards. This "hard cover" will help prey species escape predators.

Improving an existing fencerow is much simpler than developing a new one from bare soil. One problem with aging fencerows is that large trees eventually overshadow and eliminate the shrubs and outer strips of thick herbaceous cover.

Good management requires removing the outside trees, so that you can return the fencerow to a more suitable combination of grasses, shrubs and trees.

As fencerows mature, some of the trees in the central portion will eventually die. Rather than being a detriment, this is actually an opportunity to add diversity. A dead tree allows sunlight to reach the ground and shrubs and plants to grow, creating small "clumps" of denser cover.

The standing dead tree will also invite woodpeckers to come and look for food in the dead bark, and the fallen limbs make excellent protected places for small animals to rest and bask in the sun. A dead and/or rotting log is also home to grubs and insects, which become food for smaller species of wildlife.

Sometimes--and in some places--fencerows simply don't make much sense, but in most cases they provide extremely useful habitat for animals that would otherwise have no place to hide, feed or nest.

If you have the land and the opportunity, build or improve a fencerow. No matter how big or small you make it, you'll be doing Missouri's wildlife a big favor.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer