From Farmland to Grassland

By Membership & Communications Manager, Roxey Lay

When you think of a Wildlands Trust preserve, you may immediately think of trails that lead visitors throughout woodlands to explore the undeveloped pockets of the region. What you may not think of immediately are fields. In addition to the wooded areas Wildlands protects, there are also a number of former farms, managed by stewardship staff to remain as open grasslands. Habitats like these fields tend to disappear in this part of the state, either through development, the installation of solar fields, or through lack of management. “Grasslands don’t want to stay grasslands”, Stewardship Manager, Erik Boyer explains. “Their natural state is forest.” With fewer grassland habitats throughout the region, Wildlands makes it a point to maintain a number of properties like Great River Preserve, Willow Brook Farm Preserve, and Phillips Farm Preserve, as such in order to provide a stable habitat and foraging area for wildlife that rely on vegetation that grows there.

Joe-pye weed, Eutrochium purpureum, grows at Great River Preserve in Bridgewater.

A primary group that rely on these areas are pollinators, like bees. Throughout North America, there are nearly 4,000 native species of bees [1]; however, 14 species in New England are on the decline by as much as 90% [2]. This does not include the European honey bee, which is not native to North America, having been brought over in the 1600s by the colonists. In an attempt to pinpoint the cause of this decline, “scientists have blamed a range of factors including insecticides (neonicotinoids), parasites, disease, climate change and lack of a diverse food supply” [2]. Native flower diversity is a critical part in helping the region’s native bee species as well as having various plants that bloom during different months throughout the year. “Having large open fields that have native plants that provide a continuous food supply to common and specialty bees are important”, explains Plymouth County Entomologist, Blake Dinius. “Many types of bees only forage during certain months out of the year.” A large number of common plants that attract generalist foragers like honey bees and bumble bees aren’t always adequate for specialist species who only feed on specific flowers; if those types of plants aren’t available, these species die off.

The distance between foraging sites is important as well. “Bees and other insect pollinators require nesting sites (suitable soil, dead wood, abandoned mouse nests, burrows) and floral resources (nectar and pollen) to persist” [3]. Unlike the honey bee, which lives in a hive, 70% of all bees nest underground [4] and viable nesting and foraging sites like open grasslands are at risk due to “row-crop agriculture, grazing and fragmentation of habitat” [3]. While larger species like honey bees and bumble bees travel 2-3 miles (sometimes farther) outside of their nesting location for food, many solitary bees, who are smaller yet “known to pollinate plants more efficiently than honey bees” [5], travel very short distances (typically less than a mile). Maintaining sites that are relatively close together are important in supporting the wide range of needs among various species.

Habitat loss and fragmentation, the process of reducing large tracts of land into smaller pieces via development, “are currently the main threats to terrestrial biodiversity”[6]. Wildlands works to expand continuous areas of ecological significance when acquiring land by identifying parcels that share borders with properties protected by towns and other organizations. This type of collaboration results in the creation of larger wildlife corridors throughout various habitats. Willow Brook Farm in Pembroke is a prime example of this. The roughly 167 acres that compose Willow Brook are nestled between Herring Run Historical Park and Misty Meadows Conservation Area. The shared borders between these three conservation lands results in a much larger protected area and reduces the distance between open spaces.

In short, Wildlands’ preserves which contain managed open fields provide food, a safe place to nest and a pesticide free environment for pollinators and other wildlife who rely on them. While there is much to learn in regards to why bees are facing declining numbers, there’s no doubt these spaces play an important role in their survival and the overall environmental health of the region. Through the preservation of varied habitats that include these grasslands, Wildlands and other land conservation organizations are working together to secure expansive tracts of vital habitat that may otherwise be lost forever.

A map showing the shared borders of Misty Meadow Conservation Area, Willow Brook Farm Preserve and Herring Run Historical Park.