Habitat helped with a lesson in succession

Habitat helped with a lesson in succession
John C. Lorson

Webelos Scouts from Pack 357 worked alongside staff from Holmes Soil & Water Conservation District to collect over 100 cast-off Christmas trees and use them to create brush pile wildlife habitat at the site of the former Holmes County Landfill. The Holmes County Park District recently took possession of over 250 acres of the fully reclaimed site and will develop a host of recreational opportunities on the property.


The sky started with snowflakes the size of sparrows and then spent a bit of time trying to make up its mind between fluffy white flakes, clear heavy raindrops and tiny ice pellets the size of 6-shot. Finally, Mother Nature made the call, settling on a wet, heavy snow that did its best to cling to pine needles and the anemic blades of sun-starved grass before dripping to the soil below — the perfect recipe for mud.

This is what we get for planning a field day in the middle of January with a bunch of kids, I thought as I started the car and headed to the office. Time, atmospheric mayhem and the need for additional layers of clothing had chased me off of the bicycle and behind the wheel on a Monday morning — definitely not my idea of a great start to the work week. Things were about to get decidedly better, however.

Our day’s mission was to finish what we’d started when we put out a call for folks to drop off their post-holiday Christmas trees behind our office: We would use them to create wildlife habitat.

Such Christmas tree collections happen in many larger cities as a means of keeping the trees from ending up in a landfill. Many times the trees are trucked to a recycling center where they are shredded or chipped, then folded into a pile of next year’s mulch or topsoil.

In areas bordering bodies of water, whole trees are often lashed together, weighted with cinder blocks and sunk to the bottom of ponds or lakes to create underwater habitat for fish. Hatchling fish find cover among the branches, and as the story so often goes in nature, bigger fish eat the smaller fish and so forth and so on.

Spend any time with a sport fisher and sooner or later the talk will turn to “structure.” Sunken Christmas trees are one of the quickest ways to add structure to an underwater ecosystem.

The interesting twist in our Christmas tree campaign was that right from the start we intended to have our trees wind up at the landfill — the former Holmes County Landfill, which has been fully reclaimed and recently deeded to the Holmes County Park District.

While a good bit beyond the barren bottom of a newly dug fishing hole, a fair portion of the 256-acre landscape is a blank slate. While certain portions of the land must be mowed on an annual basis, other areas are ripe for successional reforestation — a natural process that sees the land evolve through a series of ecosystems, each with its own distinct habitat and dominant species.

As grassland moves to scrubland; cover for small creatures is created. And where small animals thrive, the things that eat them follow. It’s just like the bottom of a pond, but the pace of change is considerably more dramatic because of the variety and diversity of land plants and animals that can take hold.

A brush pile of Christmas trees is an island to which insects, birds, reptiles and small mammals flock. A little cover goes a long way, and a perch above the surrounding grassland provides a great place for a bachelor bird to send out his springtime song. Snakes and other ground travelers can find a home amid the tangle. Shade and shelter from the wind offer advantages to all.

Even the seeds of plants that will slowly roll grassland into scrubland into second growth forest gain advantage as they are carried and dropped by birds or blown to snag on the drying needles and eventually fall to the ground to bed in a natural mulch.

With the help of a bunch of rough and ready Webelos Scouts, we turned 100 castoff Christmas trees into an arc of nine wildlife oases across a bull-thistled meadow. To see a 10-year-old’s boundless enthusiasm for making fun out of the hard work of conservation — even on a hopelessly gray day — gave each of us grown-ups a lift that even the bluster of January couldn’t quash.

To imagine their excitement at returning some snowy day to find their own tiny wildlife island tracked over, under and across by creatures of every sort, is the kind of thing folks in the conservation business dream of. A spark fans to a flame.

They’ll see what they’ve accomplished and seek to do more. Maybe they’ll grow up to fill our shoes? Succession, after all, is only natural in the world of conservation.

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email jlorson@alonovus.com.

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