Grasslands are ecosystems composed primarily of herbaceous plant species dominated by grasses. On the Willowsford landscape, the majority of our grasslands are remnants from agricultural activity. While the historic land cover of northern Virginia was mostly forest, grasslands play an important role in biodiversity. Many plant and animal species require grasslands to survive. Grasslands are prime targets for development and agriculture and are thus vulnerable to habitat loss. As open grassland is lost, grassland obligate species, those that require grasslands to survive, go homeless and hungry. Willowsford Conservancy is committed to preserving and improving grassland habitat across our landscape.
Besides being beautiful, grasslands provide many benefits such as wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, and ecosystem diversity to name just a few!
Native grassland plant species have evolved with wildlife for thousands of years. As such, native species provide many habitat benefits which non-native species do not.
Native wildflowers in grassland ecosystems provide food sources to pollinators, increase plant diversity, and create beautiful landscapes. Pollinators benefit from nectar and pollen from flowering plants while caterpillars and other insects eat leaves. Birds and mammals will feed on the fruits and seeds provided by successfully reproducing flowering plants.
Active grassland management at Willowsford primarily involves bush hogging; using a large tractor-pulled brush mower. The purpose of bush hogging is to maintain open grasslands by preventing the establishment of woody species which over time can take over the area. In certain locations, we want this natural succession from grassland to woodland to occur. However, in other areas we want to maintain grassland habitat for wildlife, landscape diversity, and for aesthetics.
For wildlife which relies on grassland habitat, early bush hogging and mowing can have detrimental effects. Grassland birds, deer, rabbits, and other species use grasslands for nesting in the spring and summer. Willowsford Conservancy delays bush hogging to allow wildlife to successfully nest and reproduce, thereby supporting our local wildlife population. Additionally, delaying bush hogging and mowing allows wildflowers to bloom and set seed, increasing pollinator resources and the beauty of our landscape.
To learn more about Willowsford Conservancy’s bush hogging policy, click here.
DESIGNATED WILDLIFE HABITAT
The Conservancy elects certain areas as Designated Wildlife Habitat which are grassland areas of high wildlife value. These areas possess a variety of beneficial characteristics such as pollinator resources, forage such as seed, berries, and foliage, and good vegetative coverage. Designated Wildlife Habitat areas are bush hogged once a year in the fall to allow wildlife, pollinator, and floral reproduction to take place and provide cover throughout the year. Bush hogging once a year not only improves grassland habitat value but also reduces fossil fuel usage.
Naturalization Areas are grasslands which the Conservancy has elected to not bush hog unless deemed necessary. The Conservancy wishes to allow natural succession to take place and allow these grassland areas to convert to forested areas over time. Allowing these areas to convert to woodland reduces forest fragmentation which has important implications for wildlife. Certain woodland species require larger patches of forest such as bobcats, bears, and many species of songbirds and owls. Having larger contiguous habitat areas also reduces human/wildlife conflict by allowing animals to travel without crossing developed areas. Additionally, eliminating bush hogging disturbance will allow more wildlife to occupy these Naturalization Areas.
The Grange: The Wet Meadow is the Conservancy’s flagship grassland ecosystem where we manage a diversity of native wildflower and grass species. Pollinators can be seen collecting nectar and pollen while birds dart through the air trying to catch a meal on the wing. Additionally, vernal pools in the Wet Meadow provide the opportunity to observe dragonflies and amphibians.
FARM LOOP TRAIL
The Grange: The eastern Farm Loop Trail boasts 10 bluebird nest boxes which are typically occupied by either eastern bluebirds or tree swallows. Other potential species which could be observed are Carolina chickadees, house wrens, and tufted titmice.
WILLOW GROVE COMMUNITY PARK
The Grove: With the Corn Crib situated in the middle of an open field overlooking Willow Grove Pond, the Willow Grove Community Park is an idyllic setting to observe grassland wildlife.
BULL RUN OVERLOOK TRAIL
The Greens: The Bull Run Overlook Trail crosses through some of the largest and least disturbed grasslands in Willowsford. The seasonal wildflower color palette provides a wonderful backdrop for observing raptors soaring through the air or perched, intently searching for their next meal.