2014-04-03 / News

Hayfield habitats need protecting

Spring has arrived in New England, along with migratory songbirds flying north for the summer, one of the most sought-after signs of the season.

Songbird populations, however, have declined by nearly 40 percent in recent years because of threats to their nesting habitat. In particular, grassland-nesting birds signal that the agricultural heritage remains alive and well when farms continue to support a managed ecosystem. But in the last few years, farms in Rhode Island, particularly Jamestown, have faced substantial shifts in costs to balance farm management with healthy bird populations.

In an effort to reverse the decline in bird populations, the Bobolink Project uses community contributions to pay farmers to adopt haying practices that protect nesting habitats of grassland birds, such as the bobolink. The project started in Jamestown as an initiative through the University of Rhode Island, and has been continuing as collaboration with the universities of Connecticut and Vermont. It offers a way for residents to pledge financial support to farms managing their lands for wildlife.

The Bobolink Project in 2013 raised more than $34,000 to protect more than 200 acres of hayfields, including 40 acres in Rhode Island. The program works with farmers willing to delay mowing their hayfields until after the bobolink’s nesting season. Careful, and potentially expensive, hayfield management prevents nesting birds from facing unnatural levels of predation that generally wipe out grassland nests after normal hay harvesting.

In Jamestown, the Watson Farm has found the project compatible with the farm’s mission. Farm manager Don Minto, however, has faced some challenges in managing his livestock to limit grazing and alter his hay-harvest schedule in the interest of the birds.

“It can be difficult to manage for the co-existence of farm operations and maintaining some habitat to protect the nests and young birds, but it is something that we strive to do,” he said. “Recent costs for feed, especially with changes in energy markets, have raised the challenge for our ability to consider the birds. But it’s a good thing to do for the environment, and the sustainability of farms in Jamestown.”

UConn Professor Steven Swallow leads the charge for the Bobolink Project. A resident of Richmond, he hopes communities in the Ocean State can help.

“Rhode Island farms are squeezed pretty hard for land, feed and options to balance such environmental goods with the landscape farmers provide for communities,” he said. “With increasing farm costs, we hope our supporters will step forward to encourage others to join in.”

This summer the project hopes to protect an increased number of hayfields in Conanicut and Aquidneck islands. Individuals can designate which community they want their contributions to go. However, the amount of acreage supported in any community depends on the number of pledges received for that community’s farms. The deadline to pledge for Jamestown farms is Tuesday, April 15. Supporters of Aquidneck Island farms have until April 21. Interested donors can pledge at BobolinkProject.com.

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