Acorns don’t fall far from the tree. Nor do seeds of many of Delaware’s native fruiting trees and shrubs. If nature is allowed to take its course, the red maple and sweetgum seeds can be carried long distances by the wind before landing and settling in for the long term. But acorns and fruit seeds depend upon wildlife to move them to new locations such as abandoned farm fields. In technical terms, this process is called “succession.” Abandoned fields slowly progress from being dominated by grasses, to shrubs to trees and forest understory plants.
But rare and disappearing species don’t have time to wait for former farm fields to transform into forests. Planting habitat islands accelerates the process. Once in place, these “instant habitats” attract the small mammals and birds that continue the process of succession by spreading native seeds in flight and through droppings.
There is more than one reason for The Nature Conservancy to take on important reforestation projects across the state. One is to replace habitat lost to human activity. The other is replace habitat lost to natural catastrophic events such as hurricanes. Both increase resiliency to weather events and other natural stressors.
In the First State, the chapter’s current efforts are restoring forests that were cleared for agriculture and timbering, and reconnecting existing stands of forests, or fragmented habitat. Reducing habitat fragmentation helps species that depend on large unbroken swaths of forests to survive. Successful reforestation supports an overall greater diversity of plants and animals at places like out Milford Neck Preserve.
Helping Succession Along
We begin reforestation of our preserves with existing forests, either filling interior areas or connecting fragments. Projects proceed through a series of stages, developing from grassland to scrub areas to young woodland to mature woodland.
Each stage provides habitat for an ever-changing assembly of wildlife. Grasslands, for example, provide excellent habitat for sparrows, mice, and deer. Mature forests provide excellent habitat for woodpeckers, mice, deer and migrating songbirds.
“Newly reforested lands are not instant forest,” says John Graham, land steward for the Conservancy in Delaware. “Newly reforested lands are a beginning to the process of the return of a mature forest. Succession happens more rapidly because of our efforts, but the process still takes many, many years—perhaps up to 75 years—to truly develop a mature forest.”