If left undisturbed, non-forested lands in
Kentucky typically undergo a predictable series of vegetation growth stages,
eventually becoming mature forests. Each stage, from annual grasses and forbs
(broadleaf plants) to mature forest, benefits certain types of wildlife. The job
for the wildlife manager is to understand the vegetation stages needed by
wildlife and then determine ways to provide and maintain those stages. One way
to establish the desired vegetation stages or habitats is to allow the selected
areas to grow naturally into the needed stages. This practice is known as
Providing all the necessary vegetation types is
the major challenge and it is often where success or failure of a wildlife
habitat improvement project is determined. Some recommended wildlife habitat
improvement practices are expensive and time consuming. On the other hand, you
may be surprised to learn that some critically important wildlife habitat
components may be provided at little or no expenditure of time or money. The use
of natural revegetation is one of those low cost ways of providing excellent
However, achieving the desired habitat stage by
natural revegetation may not require nearly as much effort as the eventual need
for maintaining the area at that stage. Generally, early vegetation stages, such
as grasslands, require the greatest effort to maintain. For example, you must
consider if you will have the ability to provide the intensity of management
required to keep an area in annual grasses and forbs before you decide to put
the effort into creating that habitat type. Compared to annual or perennial
grasses, maintaining a mature forest requires very little effort.
What are the vegetation types
that may be created by natural revegetation?
Below are five general vegetation stages
listed in the order in which they naturally occur. If an area of land is
disturbed down to bare ground as a result of plowing or disking, the first
vegetation stage to occur will be annual grasses and forbs. So, that stage is
the earliest or youngest stage. The final stage is mature forest. That is the
last or oldest stage. Beside each vegetation stage is listed an example of just
a few of the wildlife benefits of that stage.
Vegetation Stage Examples of Plants
Benefits to Wildlife
Annual grasses and forbs Foxtail grass and ragweed Areas
of bare soil, seeds
Perennial grasses and forbs Warm and cool season
grasses/clover Nesting cover, forage
Vines, briars and shrubs Blackberry, grapevine, dogwood
Escape cover, fruits, berries and buds
Young forest Ash, poplar, maple, sassafras Seeds and buds
Mature forest Oak, hickory, walnut, beech Tree cavities
for nesting, nuts
Where will the plants come from?
The technique of natural revegetation
relies upon plants growing from three primary sources: 1) from plants already on
the site, 2) from plants lying dormant in the soil as seeds or roots, and 3)
from the seeds of nearby plants carried by the wind or animals. Often times,
many desirable species of plants may already be present. Young plants may be
held back by more aggressive species that outcompete them for moisture,
sunlight, and nutrients. Tall fescue grass is a prime example of an undesirable
and very aggressive plant that suppresses many favorable plants. If fescue is
eliminated, numerous desirable plants will be released to grow into good
Seeds and roots may lay dormant in the soil for
many years. Lack of sunlight may be the primary factor keeping them from
sprouting. In most cases complete or partial removal of tall vegetation such as
trees will enable enough sunlight to reach the ground to allow grasses, forbs,
vines and shrubs to emerge from the soil.
Lastly, even though seeds may not be present
exactly where you want a specific habitat type to grow, those desirable plant
types may be close enough for their seeds or nuts to be delivered by the wind or
by animals. Light seeded tree species such as maple and ash are especially
efficient at being transported by wind. Seeds of berry producing species such as
dogwoods and hawthorns are frequently dropped by birds. Fruits and nuts such as
persimmons and acorns are carried by squirrels and opossums.
How do I get started with natural
First, find a place. Choosing the right
place depends a great deal upon the habitat stage you decide to create. If you
decide to make an annual grass and forb area you should select a location which
poses no concern for erosion problems and can be accessed easily with the proper
equipment. Although you will not have to plant the desired species of annual
grasses and forbs, such an area will require disking* or tilling every couple of
years. The ground must be level and not covered with rocks or stumps that would
interfere with the use of farm equipment.
Perennial grasses such as the various species of
native grasses common to Kentucky appear in many places once competing
vegetation is removed. Ideal locations to attempt natural revegetation of native
grasses are those that lend themselves to be maintained by mowing* or prescribed
burning.* Such areas must be relatively level to allow safe use of a tractor and
brush-hog or, if burning is the management option chosen, they must be in areas
that are compatible with the creation of adequate firelanes.
The final three stages of habitats (shrubs, young
forest, and mature forest) are the least restrictive to a particular location.
Many times landowners choose to create shrub or forest areas on portions of
their lands that are the most steeply sloped or have the poorest soils. They
save their best and most level soils for agricultural purposes or for the
earlier habitat stages that must be maintained using farm equipment. Steep
hillsides and valleys are logical locations for woody habitat creation. You may
even choose to create forested habitat on level ground that was once used for
agricultural crop production. (Note: Even though crop fields will most likely be
excellent soils for growing trees, be aware that an area that has been put in
crops for several years is unlikely to have seeds or roots of shrubs or trees.
Rather than using natural revegetation to produce trees or shrubs in those
areas, planting of the desired tree species* would result in the greatest
Mark off the area to be allowed to revegetate
naturally. Identify the boundary of the entire natural revegetation area.
Driving metal fence posts or painted wooden stakes or using some other method of
designating this habitat area may be critically important to its success. This
is less important if only one person will maintain the area for years
to come. But if there is a possibility that other
people will be mowing or raising crops adjacent to this habitat, it is essential
that a boundary line be clearly visible to avoid accidental damage to the area.
Obviously, if livestock will be grazed next to the natural revegetation area, a
fence* must be erected and carefully maintained to prevent damage to that
Determine the type of site preparation needed. To
initiate natural revegetation you must first eliminate what, if anything, is
suppressing the desired type of vegetation. If the beginning signs of the
desired type plants are present already, then you may choose a passive
approach. In this case you do nothing but wait and see what happens. This is
most likely the best first step. If you wait a year or two you may see the
desired results without doing anything else. A chemical treatment to the
area may be required once you realize the desired vegetation type is being too
suppressed to emerge or if you are desiring a vegetation stage that is of an
earlier type than the one present at the time. For example, if the area is
currently occupied by blackberries and shrubs and you desire it to become a
native warm season grassland, you may choose to begin the natural revegetation
process by spraying herbicide to eliminate the briars and shrubs. Specific
chemicals, such as Crossbow‚ and Arsenal‚, are available for use in killing
shrubs or trees that may be shading out desirable plants. Chemical treatment of
dense stands of fescue can result in the growth of many excellent, naturally
occurring plants. Mechanical treatment such as brush-hogging, chainsawing,
disking* or tilling may be used for the same reasons as stated for chemical
treatments. Competition from fescue may be reduced by heavy disking or tilling.
A tractor and brush-hog may be used to eliminate briars, shrubs, or young trees.
Larger trees may require felling with chainsaws or girdling standing trees. In
some instances a combination of mechanical and chemical treatments may be
the most practical means of getting off to a good start. Using the above
example, an area covered with briars and shrubs may be brush-hogged to the
ground and then chemically treated to eliminate sprouting of those plants. This
would give the native warm season grasses their best chance at success.
How long do I have to wait for my
desired habitat type to grow by natural revegetation?
Once the site preparation work has been
done, just sit back and wait for your project to develop. How long it will take
depends upon many different factors such as how well your site preparation
effort works, the types of soils, and the stage of habitat you desire to
achieve. If things go well you can expect results to occur as indicated on the
Type of Habitat Desired Average Time to
Annual grasses and forbs 1 year
Perennial grasses and forbs 2 - 5 years
Briars, vines and shrubs 3 - 10 years
Young forest 15 - 30 years
Mature forest 50 - 100 years
Once a habitat stage is
established, how do I maintain it at that level?
Maintenance of a desired vegetation stage
will be most intensive for the earliest vegetation stages (such as annual
grasses and forbs) and will be least or not required at all for the latest stage
The primary habitat maintenance techniques
involve disking, mowing, prescribed burning, and chainsawing.
(Note: herbicide treatment may be used as a means of maintaining an area in the
desired vegetation stage, but it is more often used in the establishment of the
desired habitat or for controlling exotic and invasive plants.) Disking
may be conducted to maintain habitat stages from annual grasses through shrubs
and it is the only one of these techniques that will assist in establishing or
maintaining annual grasses and forbs. Heavy disking in briars, vines and shrubs
may revert the area back to bare ground and annual grasses while less disking in
that same area will expose less bare soil, thus maintaining it in perennial
grasses or cause new sprouting of briars, vines and shrubs.
may be used to maintain habitat stages from perennial grasses through shrubs. It
is not useful for annual grass maintenance because it does not disturb the soil.
Prescribed burning may, if done with the proper burn plan, expert
technical advice and caution, be used to maintain perennial grasses and forbs
and plant growth stages up to and including some types of mature forest
situations. However, its greatest value to the average Kentucky landowner may be
to help establish and maintain native warm season grasslands and prevent the
establishment of woody vegetation.
For natural revegetation purposes, chainsawing
is mainly used to keep tall trees out of briar, vine and shrub areas or to keep
young woodlands from advancing into a mature stand. As an additional benefit it
should be noted that trees and shrubs removed can be used to make excellent
brush piles* for wildlife.
One key to choosing to establish a particular
stage of vegetation is to make sure of your ability to maintain it in the
future. Remember, the earlier stages of plant growth require more intensive
management than the later stages. Also, be sure not to allow the vegetation in
an area to grow far beyond the desirable stage. It will take a great deal more
work to revert it back than it would to regularly maintain.
Techniques Used for Maintaining
Plant Growth Stages
|Annual Grasses and Forbs
|Perennial Grasses and Forbs
|Briars, Vines and Shrubs
*Related Habitat How-To references: