Small farms, biodiversity, and the importance of data.

In our increasingly suburbanized and homogenized world, we are proud to maintain a working farm that conserves a little piece of our diverse Piedmont landscape and its biodiversity.  Our 10 acres not only includes managed old field and cropland, but also shrubland areas for the birds who need that habitat, a farm pond that helps catch silt from upstream tobacco farms and filters/slows down the water before it hits the Flat River, and about 4 acres of high quality oak-hickory forest that slopes down to the river.  But the shining star of our farm is the Flat River itself and its adjacent forest.

Flat River view from our property

Flat River view from our property

The patch of hardwood forest and stream, though privately owned by our family and dozens of homeowners and farmers in our neighborhood, continues to be a large unbroken patch of intact forest bordering a relatively intact and unpolluted stretch of Piedmont stream (a rarity in this very populous and growing region).

The mix of habitats on our farm isn’t something you see on large industrial farms, or in heavily suburban landscapes, or even in most remote rural areas.  In fact, this diversity of habitats is increasingly difficult to find anywhere in the Piedmont, meaning that many of the birds and other critters that rely on shrublands, open grasslands, and relatively intact rivers in a matrix of forest are becoming scarcer and scarcer.

The more natural sections of our neighborhood along the river have the potential to harbor a rare species of aquatic salamander and rare mussels that are only found in a few locations in the Neuse River drainage.  And our management of the land helps enhance that habitat.  So the role of small farmers (and a few institutions managing for diverse landscapes that support high biodiversity) in actively managing for these diverse habitats while maintaining the more natural features of the landscape will continue to be more and more important as our landscape is developed, graded, and degraded, and as the common species become more scarce and the rare species become even rarer.

There are two big issues facing the Piedmont and its species – 1) there are many formerly common species that are declining rapidly as land use changes occur that eliminate previously common ecosystems like shrublands and old fields, and 2) rare species, generally found only in the most intact and unique ecosystems, are becoming even more rare as these ecosystems are lost or further degraded.  So we need to have good data on the status of all of these species to better understand trends and when/where to take action.  It turns out that there is a little known, but amazing group of people in each state that does exactly this work.  In North Carolina, it’s the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, a program of the state government.  The biologists, data managers, and conservation planners there are charged with collecting data and keeping tabs on the rarest of the rare species and ecosystems in our state.  They review and update their data on a regular basis to help determine which species are most highly imperiled in the state (and which species may become imperiled in the near future). They work with NatureServe to add their data to a national database to determine which species are most imperiled at the national level as well (global rarity).  And in North Carolina, based on the data, they identify areas that are the best areas to protect in order to potentially preserve the most species possible (our natural heritage).

Baiting the traps

Baiting the traps

It turns out that the area along the Flat River was identified by the program’s Wildlife and Biodiversity Habitat Assessment as being of very high importance, specifically because it may contain habitat for the imperiled Neuse River waterdog and a few imperiled mussel species.  As you guys know, we named the farm after the waterdog, a type of aquatic salamander.  So we were delighted when the program asked to come out to the farm to try to find evidence of the waterdogs.

Last week Judy Ratcliffe arrived on Monday morning to set traps that would potentially catch the salamanders so we could document their existence along the river.  With help from some awesome neighbors and other heritage staff, we set out traps along the river and the heritage program checked them each morning for 5 days.  Alas, this round of trapping did not net any waterdogs, though we had a lot of fun catching and releasing the shiners, catfish, chub, and crayfish that were attracted to the chicken livers.  That doesn’t necessarily mean the waterdogs aren’t there (they are notoriously difficult to trap) so hopefully we’ll be able to try again some other winter.  The program is hoping to come back later in the spring and survey the site for rare mussels.

Rickie helping to set waterdog tracks

Rickie helping to set waterdog tracks

Thanks to the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, we have the data that shows how rare some of these key species are and the means to target areas for conservation to help preserve them.  And thanks to the staff of the program, we now have a better understanding of the biodiversity along our little stretch of river and how it contributes to the overall natural heritage of our state, region, and nation.  As a small farm owner, we look forward to doing our part to help preserve the habitat for these creatures into the future and to work with the state of North Carolina’s amazing North Carolina Natural Heritage program to make that happen.  As citizens of our state, we’re all deeply indebted to the Natural Heritage Program for the products they have produced and continue to produce that help us ensure that the species and ecosystems of our state continue to be conserved into the future.

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