In Defence of Meadows
Too often belittled as “idle” land awaiting development – or “rescued” by reforestation – meadows deserve the same protection and respect as our woodlands and wetlands.
In the spring, meadows resound with bird calls – the gurgle of bobolinks, the buzzes and trills of sparrows, the lazy whistles of meadowlarks. Summer’s heat finds them aflutter with the Technicolor beauty of monarchs, fritillaries, admirals and a host of other butterflies. Then, as late summer melds into autumn, asters and goldenrod daub the meadows violet and yellow, and myriad crickets hum come-hither rhythms until silenced by frost.
But for all this lavish life, meadows are often overlooked and underappreciated. When we think of habitats worthy of our concern and protection, forests and wetlands often come to mind. Conservationists in other parts of Ontario also rightly celebrate rare prairie and savanna ecosystems. But run-of-the-mill meadows? Too often they are simply ignored or labelled “idle” land, awaiting a developer’s earth movers.
If not awaiting imminent development, meadows have also become the focus of well-meaning, but often ill-advised, tree-planting schemes. Most worrying, perhaps, is an indifference born of ignorance. The stunning biodiversity of meadows hasn’t been widely acknowledged or celebrated. Nor are most people aware that this biodiversity is threatened, not by climate change or pesticides, but by simple natural succession. Trees are reclaiming the meadows of Headwaters.
Granted, some forward-thinking conservationists are beginning to recognize the value of “native grasslands.” Credit Valley Conservation, for example, offers funding through the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry for native grassland restoration projects on private land. This is all to the good.
But “restored” native grasslands aren’t my focus. Rather, I’m talking about the sprawling unplanned meadows that exist in places such as Forks of the Credit and Mono Cliffs provincial parks. These meadows don’t meet anyone’s criteria for “native grassland,” though they certainly contain lots of native plants. Growing on abandoned farmland, they are mashups of native and non-native flora and fauna, and while they might not evoke strong conservation sentiment, they absolutely should.
At Forks of the Credit Provincial Park at least, a few people are opening their eyes to the fact that trees are gradually, incrementally, advancing farther into its extensive upland meadows and its meadow life is retreating. Tentative steps are being taken to preserve at least some of the meadowlands through a partnership between the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and the Halton/North Peel Naturalist Club, and some modest removal of woody vegetation may begin there as early as this fall.
My goal is to persuade you of the “rightness” of this management. But I also hope to start a wider conversation about meadows and why we should cherish them as much as we do wetlands and woodlands. That conversation begins with the remarkable plants and animals that depend on meadows.
Powered by sunlight, unfiltered by trees, exuberant vegetation grows in meadows, supporting a diverse population of bugs, those already mentioned and many more: praying mantises and conehead grasshoppers, meadow katydids and assassin bugs, tiger moths and cloudywing butterflies, shamrock orb weavers and calico pennant dragonflies.
All this meadow-generated protein feeds birds. Three at-risk species – bobolinks, meadowlarks and grasshopper sparrows – depend utterly on meadows and grasslands and their plenitude of bugs. In addition, two threatened swallow species, bank and barn, dart and dive over meadows, foraging on the bounty of aerial insects to feed themselves and, critically, their young.
In the late summer and early fall last year, I spent time observing – and revelling in – this profusion of life. Over four sun-kissed mornings, I explored the biodiversity of Forks of the Credit Provincial Park in Caledon and recorded my observations in a journal. I arrived at dawn each morning and generally had the fecund, extravagant meadowlands to myself until about 9 a.m.
From my Journal — Thursday, September 10
Arrived at Forks of the Credit Provincial Park at daybreak. 11°C, quiet, clear, glorious. Spiderwebs bejewelled with dew omnipresent – made by at least four species of orb weavers. Birds called infrequently – it is, after all, late summer: flickers, kingfishers, wood ducks, crows, jays, wistful song sparrows and warbling vireos. Vultures overhead. Crickets called throughout. First monarch revealed itself at 9:20. Another rose straight up and quickly out of sight after I disturbed it. I saw five or six all told. By 9:30 the air had warmed sufficiently for bumblebee flight. As the temperature approached its high of 22°C, cicadas called. I also became aware of a “snap, crackle, pop” sound. This seemed to begin after the rising sun had warmed the plants. It turned out to be the tiny explosions made by purple vetch pods as they released their seeds.
Each morning at Forks of the Credit, I was greeted with hushed quiet. The hum of commuter traffic on Highway 10 to the east was white noise that soon receded from my consciousness. In the chill of the mornings, a fleeting mist hovered over the large kettle pond, one of the signature landscape features of this wonderful park. And then those spiderwebs!
The sunlight peeking over the hills burned off the mist and magically, delightfully, was captured by millions of dewdrops to reveal the exquisite architecture of the webs. Strung like fishing nets across the meadows, the webbing was a deadly beauty. The builders – spiders with names like black-and-yellow garden argiopes, banded garden argiopes, shamrock orb weavers and cross orb weavers – waited for unwary prey to become ensnared.
As the sun continued to warm the chilled meadow, flowers, diverse in form and colour, shook off the dew and offered pollen and nectar to a constellation of insect life. The morning’s first bees – bumblebees, honeybees, leafcutter bees – started buzzing, all eager to fuel their preparations for the winter to come. Some were stocking their hives with provisions. Others were bulking up for the long winter’s sleep that lay ahead, and many were simply enjoying the sweetness of their final days, before being struck down by the cold.
From my Journal — Friday, September 18
My second morning sojourn at Forks of the Credit Provincial Park. Started at dawn, about 6:45. The temperature was 13°C or so and not low enough to encourage significant dew, but I found plenty of photo-ops nonetheless. The temperature rose to about 24°C by noon.
Birds included jays, crows, kingfishers (one hunting in the main kettle pond), towhees, meadowlarks, goldfinches, waxwings, a lone peewee in the neighbouring woods, flickers and a red-bellied woodpecker who flew over. Spring peepers occasionally peeped tentatively, feeble echoes of their springtime calls.
Several monarchs flew – little doubt that this is a better year for them than the last two. Other butterflies were scarce but included a fritillary and a comma. Among the dragonflies were meadowhawks and a saddlebags cruising overhead. Various crickets kept up a steady, soothing cadence through the morning.
By 9 a.m. it was breezy and warm. Pollinators emerge, bumblebees and many honeybees among them. The honeybees were foraging on New England aster and goldenrod. A bumblebee favourite was red clover.
The meadow’s mix of native and non-native animals and plants works. On that morning, native bumblebees were avidly sipping nectar from introduced clover, while non-native honeybees were drawn to the native asters and goldenrods. In the meadows of Headwaters, native grasshoppers, crickets and katydids feed on Eurasian grasses and, in turn, are devoured by exotic praying mantises from Asia.
Many of the early-blooming plants – buttercups, daisies, purple vetch and a beautiful blue flower with the mildly ominous name of viper’s bugloss – are examples of the hundreds of non-native meadow plants that have Eurasian roots. But it is important to understand that our native meadow plants continue to thrive. They have the robust character necessary to compete with the interlopers from afar. In late summer the meadows of Headwaters glow with the yellow of several species of native goldenrod. Gradually, these give way to the marvellous asters, and the meadow changes, chameleon-like, to purples and whites.
The happy confluence in meadows of native and non-native life suggests ecological health doesn’t necessarily depend on native purity.
I suspect, though, that the profusion of non-native life in a meadow, especially introduced plants, is one reason some ecologists undervalue meadows. Current conservation orthodoxy casts aspersions on anything non-native. It is time to examine our biases and adopt a more nuanced approach. I grant that some introduced plants do threaten ecological health – the dog-strangling vine currently spreading like the plague in Ontario’s meadows comes to mind. But many non-native meadow plants over their century-plus of colonization have naturalized alongside native species and – this will rankle the purists – can even be seen to enhance biodiversity rather than diminish it.
I don’t say this idly. I’ve observed the great appeal of many non-native meadow plants to pollinators, and many, including clover, vetches and Queen Anne’s lace, provide nectar and pollen in the spring before native pollinator plants hit their stride.
From my Journal — Monday, September 21
My third morning at Forks of the Credit Provincial Park. Started about 6:30. The temperature was a mere 8°C, rather chilly. The early morning was graciously still. I photographed asters at this time. Birds calling included the inevitable crows and jays. A yellowthroat recapitulated his springtime “witchety witchety” call, but only halfheartedly. The commuter traffic on Highway 10 and a jet overhead reminded me I was still in the GTA.
Other birds encountered included chickadees, robins, vultures, a red-breasted nuthatch and a number of sparrows that eluded identification.
The first bumblebee appeared at 9:30. At 9:45, I saw my first monarch. As the day wore on, I saw several others, but all were quite wary and flew when I was still at a distance. One did allow a closer approach, but it had a damaged left upper wing.
Highlights of the day: a lovely patch of what I think is a heath aster/New England aster hybrid. The flowers are intermediate in size, profuse and intermediate in colour between the rich purple of New England aster and the white of heath. Fascinating. Further highlights included another praying mantis and my first verified conehead, a grasshopper with a head shaped like, well, a cone. It turned out to be a sword-bearing conehead. The sword? A very long ovipositor, or egg-laying organ, wielded by the females.
I am gobsmacked once again by the diverse life that exists in these meadows – accidental life, if you will, made possible by the abandonment of the farmland that once occupied this space.
Another reason wetlands and woodlands trump meadows in the hierarchy of conservation concerns is the perception that meadows are “unnatural.” Admittedly, upland meadows like those at Forks of the Credit Provincial Park are human artifacts, made possible only because trees were cut decades ago for cropland and pastures. A farmhouse foundation, overlooking the kettle lake, is poignant evidence of the time when hardworking people attempted to wrest a living from glacial deposits consisting more of gravel than soil. Remarkably, decades-old plough furrows are still visible in grassland just west of the foundation.
Some would avow that because meadows do not represent the natural state of the land, they should be permitted, with our help or on their own, to return to trees. And these people would have a strong case. In our increasingly developed world, we need more woodlands, more habitat for trilliums, scarlet tanagers and Jefferson salamanders. But we also need more open space, more grasslands, more meadows, more shrub-dominated ecosystems.
The fact that upland meadows can’t exist in Headwaters without human intervention places an uncomfortable burden on the people of the region. In the mixedwood plains ecozone, which includes Headwaters, uplands almost always default eventually to trees. So to maintain the cornucopia of meadow life, the inevitable trees must be kept at bay – and this means cutting them. A hard bargain to be sure. We properly revere trees and the ecosystem services they provide, and the systematic cutting of trees would offend many. But if we also revere at-risk species like bobolinks, meadowlarks, monarch butterflies and so many other meadow-dependent plants and animals, we must control trees.
Surely we can somehow strike a balance.
From my Journal — Thursday, October 8
My car thermometer read 3°C when I arrived. But in the hollows at the Forks, light frost crusted the vegetation. Quiet bird calls, the traffic of morning commuters on Highway 10, and cows lowing on an adjacent farm contributed to the soundtrack at this early hour. First light revealed spiderwebs. The large orb weavers appear to have parked their craft for the season, but smaller orbs created by smaller spiders were present, as were a large number of small, unkempt webs at the tips of meadow plants.
At 9 o’clock, I startled three deer in the meadow. They announced their alarm with sneezy snorts and then bounded, tail flags held high.
Most asters are finished. The New England asters that retain some measure of dishevelled bloom harboured lots of comatose bumblebees. The asters, I presume, offer final meals of nectar to these doomed bees. Only the queen bumblebees will survive the winter. Birds heard and seen included chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers and always the crows.
Migrating flocks of blue jays flew overhead. Other migrants touching down in the meadows included palm warblers, yellow-rumped warblers and white-throated sparrows. Vultures soared overhead at 11 a.m. as the sun warmed the land. A yellow-collared scape moth fed on New England aster. And after the meadow warmed, the sibilant calls of crickets and katydids serenaded me. At one juncture, the wispy voice of a waxwing joined the chorus of crickets, sounding very much like them.
At 11:30, I flushed a monarch butterfly. With warmth predicted for Thanksgiving weekend, I hope it and other late monarchs have a chance to migrate safely south.
I wonder if we are witnessing the monarch’s last stand. In 2006, I had the good fortune to visit one of Mexico’s awe-inspiring monarch butterfly overwintering sites. There I asked Lincoln Brower, the doyen of monarch butterfly researchers in North America, about the monarch’s chances in eastern North America. He was straightforward: “Likely gone in 20 years.”
I ache when I recall his words. If he is correct – and recent years of scant monarch sightings lend credence to his prediction – we may have only 10 years or so of regular monarch presence in southern Ontario. The reasons for this decline are varied. The illegal logging of the oyamel fir trees at the overwintering sites and the application in the American Midwest of effective new herbicides that eradicate milkweed, the plant that nourishes monarch larvae, are often cited. What is often ignored though is that natural succession – the return of meadows to trees – is also extremely effective at eliminating milkweed and hence monarchs.
The loss of monarchs would be not only an ecological catastrophe but also a tragic cessation of wonder that would deny future generations the opportunity to be inspired by the monarch’s beauty and astonishing life history. Planting milkweed in our yards may help, but the meadows of Headwaters are veritable milkweed factories. Monarchs, and so much other buzzing, fluttering, web-spinning life, need these meadows. Here’s to cherishing meadows every bit as much as woodlands and wetlands. They merit our concern, our reverence and our protection.
Managing dog-strangling vine at Forks of the Credit Provincial Park
If you are among the thousands of people who visited Forks of the Credit Provincial Park in the summer, you may have noticed red flagging tape tied around the stems of some meadow plants. The tape was used to pinpoint locations of dog-strangling vine, an introduced species that presents a real menace – though despite its name, it poses no threat to dogs. Vigorous and prolific, it does entwine and out-compete other vegetation, both native and naturalized.
Dog-strangling vine is related to native milkweed, and ominously, there have been reports of monarch butterflies laying eggs on its leaves. Monarch caterpillars, which feed happily on milkweed, can’t digest the leaves of dog-strangling vine. This is additional bad news for the beleaguered butterfly.
This past July, POWER (Protect Our Water and Environmental Resources) partnered with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to identify this vine at Forks of the Credit. MNRF will return to eliminate the vine with herbicide, something that may have already occurred by the time you read this.