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5 Ways You Can Improve your Land
to Benefit Wildlife

Written by Tesla Jefferson, PLC Conservation Associate

Each individual landowner in the Piedmont of North Carolina can improve their land to benefit wildlife and make an impact on the health of our region through managing their property to mirror our natural and native ecosystems. Even a homeowner on a 0.25-acre lot can manage their yard with native grasses and wildflowers to provide more habitat for birds and pollinators. Large landowners should consider implementing practices such as controlled burns, forest stand improvement, and stream and wetland restoration to magnify their impact.

Because every piece of land in our region is as unique as their owners, every land management plan must be tailored to fit the needs of both. However, the one constant thing that can be said is that if a property is managed for our native ecosystems, then everyone benefits.

1. Plant Native Plants

You may have heard this one, but it’s always worth repeating. Creating flourishing habitats for wildlife means starting at the ground level. Native plants are the foundation of our ecosystem as food for the majority of animals on the food chain. Planting native plants and removing invasive ones are a major solution.

Learn more about recommended native plants from this resource by the North Carolina Native Plant Society.

Beautiful native plants in the Pollinator Garden at Emily Allen Wildflower Preserve.

2. Plant Native Grasses

Native Grasses such as Gamma Grass, Purple Top, and Bluestem may look less manicured than Bermuda grass lawns, but they have significant benefits for our soils, waters, and wildlife. Because native grasses have long, sturdy root systems (some grow as long as 12 feet beneath the surface), they hold soil in place, reducing sediment pollution, and guiding water deep into groundwater stores and aquifers which are a critical supply for plants and humans in drier years.

Additionally, native grasses keep temperatures cooler. Not only do they provide better shade for the soils beneath them but they also have the ability to “sweat” by releasing water through their leaves to stay cool on hot days. This evaporative cooling lowers air temperatures making a field of native grasses significantly cooler than a typical suburban lawn.

Native Bluestem Grass

3. Prescribed Burns

If you’re on a larger piece of land, you may want to consider prescribed burns. Habitat disturbances such as fire are natural components of the recipe for healthy ecosystems. Periodic fires allow for the germination of seeds for fire dependent species like long leaf pines and bear oaks, help create areas of early successional habitat like grasslands and meadows, and help reduce leaf litter thereby preventing uncontrolled wildfires. It’s recommended that property being managed with prescribed fire be burned every 3-5 years.

In North Carolina, if you would like to have a controlled burn on your land then you must apply for a burn permit though your county’s NC Forest Service Office which allows for the NC Forest Service to act faster in the chance that a controlled burn on private property gets out of control.

Technically, any landowner can do their own controlled burn but if a fire escapes your control, then the NC Forest Service can issue you a citation. Piedmont Land Conservancy would not recommend that private landowners conduct their own controlled burns; unless they have received proper training on fire behavior, how to monitor weather conditions, and understand how to implement a safety plan don’t go as planned.

The NC Forest Service can be contracted by landowners to do the controlled burns for you; however, this service is in high demand, and it can be difficult for the County Rangers to get to every landowner’s property within the limited time of year that burning is recommended. There are also private consultant foresters who will help you with this service for a fee. Some regions in North Carolina have volunteer Prescribed Fire Councils, these councils are a network of private landowners, who all have the goal of conducting prescribed burns on their property. These landowners work together to help burn each other’s properties without the need for outside sources. There currently isn’t a Prescribed Fire Council in the Piedmont of North Carolina, however several landowners have voiced that our region would benefit from one.

4. Improve Forests

If your land includes a forested area, consider a Forest Stand Improvement Plan, an FSI. Historically, almost every stand of trees in Piedmont has been logged or was once a farm field. Very few properties in the Piedmont contain true old growth forests and much of the forest we see now has too little diversity of tree species to benefit wildlife and/or the trees present are all the same age which means they complete heavily for resources which stunts their overall growth.

A mature forest will have a mix of trees of different ages and contain canopy, shrub, and ground cover layers of vegetation. If your woods have no shrub layer or light hitting the forest floor, this is one sign that your woods could benefit from Forest Stand Improvement.

Selecting which trees to remove can be difficult and should be determined on a property-by-property basis. General advice is to remove any trees that may already be diseased and aging out, then focus on tree species that you may have an abundance of and may be out competing other species (red maple and sycamore are common examples).

By removing select trees, you open the canopy to allow more sunlight. Seeds that are dormant in the soil will start to thrive in those areas. It’s amazing to see the diversity of species present in a seed bank once they are provided with the right conditions to grow. You should also leave stumps, logs, and even dead standing trees in place because they create habitat for amphibians, reptiles, and cavity nesting birds.

A well implemented FSI plan can be targeted to benefit a certain species or just work towards helping your forested area reach maturity at a faster rate. Although, it’s fair to say that “fast” is a relative term when talking about the speed at which trees grow. Overall, by opening the canopy and creating a shrub and ground cover layer you are providing a more diverse and nutrient dense diet for any wildlife that use the property.

5. Restore Wetlands and Streams

In North Carolina most wetlands don’t necessarily look “wet” year round. Many wetlands in North Carolina were drained and the soil amended to create areas for agriculture or they degraded over time as invasive species and development around the wetland changes the area. 

Restored wetland on PLC protected land in Surry County. Click the photo to read more about this land.

There are three things that an area of land needs to be classified as a wetland: hydric soils, wetland dependent plant species present (river birch, willows, and rushes) and for standing or flowing water to be present during the growing season. If you were to visit a wetland during the wintertime, the soil can be dry and it’s likely there will not be any standing water.

Wetland restoration is the process of restoring waterflow to the area, replanting wetland plant species, and removing any non-native species that may be present. 

The NC Land and Water Fund has grant funding available specifically for stream and restoration projects on properties that are already protected by a conservation easement.

The other thing you can do?

Give to local land conservation. 

By giving to Piedmont Land Conservancy you can be our partner in setting aside land for wildlife to thrive.
We’ve protected 30,000 acres and counting. Together let’s protect the nature of the Piedmont.

Consider giving to

Piedmont Land Conservancy

to protect more special places.