Animal farm

By Andrea McDowell

“Farming,” says Henry Bakker of Field Sparrow Farms, “is about good land management,” thus explaining his participation in Trent University’s innovative two-year research project on alternative approaches to hay harvesting that can help protect important bobolink habitat.

Unlike other at-risk species rendered vulnerable by fragmentation and reduction of natural habitat, the bobolink, a pretty grassland bird, needs its human neighbours to maintain artificial habitat – hayfields and pasture – during June. Bakker points out that land left alone in Ontario reverts quickly to forest; cattle farming, on the other hand, maintains the grasslands that bobolinks need to breed.

While Field Sparrow Farms already conducts its harvests during periods when grassland species are not breeding (even the farm’s name was chosen to reflect the owners’ concern for grassland birds and habitat preservation), the practice is not common on other farms. Farmers typically harvest hay when the crop and the weather cooperate, says Harry Stoddart, of Stoddart Family Farm, who is a project participant. Most years that means mid-June – right when the hayfields contain nests filled with baby bobolinks. Rescuing Ontario’s bobolink populations requires changing hay harvesting practices, delaying the harvest until late July and so potentially making them less profitable.

Enter Kristen Diemer, a Trent University master’s degree student, and her project comparing the standard harvest schedule with a modification: a first cut in late May, followed 65 days later by a second cut after bobolinks have fledged. Radio telemetry tags track the bobolinks displaced by harvesting, and nest searches and point counts determine the breeding success of the birds in the control sites compared with the experimental sites.

Will Bakker’s and Stoddart’s fellow farmers agree and adopt the new harvesting practices, should the altered schedule prove beneficial for the bobolink? Stoddart believes there will be resistance to any major changes, as high-quality hay is already a hard crop to produce, and Bakker argues that compensation is key. “It’s great to ask farmers to voluntarily get involved,” he says, “but if society is going to impose schedules, there needs to be a recognition that there is a value to the stewardship work that farmers do – a real service that is provided.”

 

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