By Ike Parrish
The Center for Natural Capital, through its Virginia Wildlife Habitat Cooperative program, is helping landowners connect their properties through corridors of protected grasslands in an effort to bring quail back to the area.
“Our goal is to educate and inspire landowners about how native grasslands and meadows can positively impact wildlife in our area,” says Amber Jenkins, coordinator for the Virginia Wildlife Habitat Cooperative. “Particularly pollinators and quail that are dependent on these types of habitats for food and shelter.”
The organization has been helping local landowners convert portions of their property into natural meadows that serve as pollinator and quail habitat, and they have been doing so naturally, without the use of herbicides or fertilizers.
Quail, a once abundant species in Virginia, have been in decline for more than 50 years, with some areas seeing as much as an 80% decrease in population.
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“They were once a highly present species in this area and now you hardly ever see or hear quail,” says Jenkins. “And that’s largely due to a lot of their habitat being destroyed. A lot of their habitat has turned into farmland and pastures.”
Urban sprawl, invasive species and succession of grasslands into forests are additional factors that have exacerbated the decline in quail population.
The Virginia Wildlife Habitat Cooperative is resuscitating native grasslands in the Central Piedmont area using a method called “quail quilting,” a term that refers to linking together parcels of land owned by adjacent landowners to extend the acreage of natural grassland bird habitat.
“The purpose of quilting these projects together is to help create a community connection by encouraging neighbors to work together and to maximize the space in each area that wildlife is able to roam in,” says Jenkins.
Such grasslands also perform as ideal habitat for pollinators like bees, or butterflies or any animal that carries pollen from one flower to another.
“We are coaching or managing roughly 300 acres of pollinator and grassland bird habitat in the Central Piedmont, all on private property,” says Mike Collins, Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Natural Capital.
The program’s ultimate goal is to adjoin neighboring parcels of land converted to natural meadows, with the help of landowners, until the grassland corridors span the entire county, reaching from one border to the other.
To do so, Jenkins has been organizing informative meetings at the homes of interested landowners. The first of which was held at the home of a Gordonsville-area landowner in October. The landowner had recently converted two and a half acres into protected quail habitat with the help of the Virginia Wildlife Habitat Cooperative.
The landowner hosted a handful of neighbors at her Gordonville home in late October. While one neighboring couple already had converted a section of their land into natural meadow, the others expressed interest in joining the collective.
The Gordonsville-area landowner said she has enjoyed seeing the wildlife return to the portion of her property and appreciates the landscape of the new natural meadow.
“My biggest surprise is it’s been really beautiful throughout the seasons as it changes colors,” she says. “It’s ever changing, and it’s remained pretty beautiful.”
The benefits for landowners extend beyond the aesthetic.
“In Orange County, pollinator habitat is eligible to receive use value taxation,” says Collins.
The Gordonville-area landowner has not yet witnessed the return of quail, but neighbors have claimed to have heard quail noises coming from the meadow.
Her meadow was created through the practice of prescribed burning. The two and a half acres were set ablaze to clear all invasive and unwanted plant species within the lot and make way for naturally occurring native species.
Prescribed burns are used to manage landscapes and restore native vegetation. The technique has been used for centuries, as early settlers witnessed Native Americans make use of this practice.
“Many of our plant and animal species, and one could argue our own species, evolved with fire,” says Collins. “Many plants and their seeds need fire to germinate.”
Collins says the absence of fire in the landscape is unnatural and the program is trying to create a fire friendly culture for management.
“The use of flame and fire is one of our key tools in our work,” he says.
The project, so far, has been funded solely by landowners. The Virginia Wildlife Habitat Cooperative are encouraging property owners to convert any amount of land to natural meadow, no matter the acreage. The program says they can create some type of improvement in habitat for any budget.
To extend their efforts in grassland restoration, the Center for Natural Capital will introduce a few pilot grassland rent programs in 2022. It will pay a yearly fee for the management of grasslands and eligible forestlands for carbon storage and biodiversity.
For more information or visit www.naturalcapital.us.