Introducing Bare-Earth Management, & The Importance for Life

When we hear of wildlife conservation and habitat management, I am sure most of us envision lush green forests & grasslands with their associated fauna ambling about. And this is often the case, these habitats are frequently found in nature and offer many great resources for many species to then settle into these areas. However there are often situations where lush greenery is not the desired habitat, even though it usually is very popular. I’m talking about bared earth, the soil substrates exposed.

To be completely clear here, I’m not referring to locations that are devoid of vegetation, but to lands dominated by greenery yet disturbed by grazing, burrowing, fires, storms, landslides, and a host of other occurrences that will strip vegetation small & large to create furrows of bare earth.

In the Natural world, if something has occurred naturally for a long enough period of time, a species will be drawn to the strange offering of alternate resources, and those that adapt best to take advantage of those specific resources will dominate them, outcompeting others. In many a case, this entails becoming a Specialist species, a creature who’s physical design is optimal only for this environment, outcompeting all others, whilst those who are more Generalist in their approach must hedge their bets and seek a wider array of resources to compensate.

However, with Specialism comes a price – a high demand for their specialist environment. And in today’s topic, that demand is Bare Earth.

Bare with Me, I’ll Explain

As we discuss bare earth, the general impression I’m giving may be one of exposing soils, which is a mistake on my end. Instead bare ground can feature many natural substrates that exist, of which we can include sand, clay, gravel, chalk and even peat, so long as they occur within that habitat naturally. And to add to interest, you’ll attract different wildlife depending on which substrate you unearth, they’re all of value. But for those looking to get the biggest bang for their buck in terms of conservation, currently our acidic and/or calcareous sands hold the title of being of greatest conservation value due to these habitats being front-runners in habitat loss. If you know what type of soil you have, why not give it a go?

Regardless of the type of soil substrate that get exposed, the substrates do get exposed naturally in nature as a temporary feature. We often maintain our habitats to do without soil exposure however, yet we are able to do it ourselves by cutting back or uprooting vegetation that has grown over it. It’s often the case that scrub, shrubs and tree canopy leave a layer of semi-bare soil beneath them due to the lack of sunlight allowed through their dense leaf layers, making them good options for a quick cut back to reveal their bare or leaf littered soils below.

Don’t worry about a few leaves & detritus, it’s natural. The focus of baring ground is it’s importance as a habitat for our basking, burrowing, and hunting invertebrates, as well as it’s niche habitat for pioneering plants, those plants that colonise new soils before others can develop. The presence of surface detritus & local shrubs offers a sheltered microclimate and food resource, whilst the bared soils is perfect for both nesting and hunting. Even bee species will use this type of terrain.

So by opening up soil you provide a rarer habitat for a range of vertebrate and invertebrate species, and in a similar sense, it allows plants that thrive on fast-growing & low-competition strategies to take root. By giving these species an opportunity develop their populations, you allow them to foster & maintain local biodiversity. As I’ve discussed previously (Sensational Biodiversity and Why You Want It), biodiversity is akin to natures immune system, where it becomes more tolerant to threatening events due to it’s many species being able to perform roles in the absence of another, keeping the ecosystem running until it recovers to previous conditions.

To both our good and bad luck, bare soil is a temporary habitat, and therefore no long-term habitat enhancement solution. As the observant amongst you may have noticed, plants tend to salivate over these bare patches of soil, growing on them at first chance. This is fortunate as this is what we want to happen – encouraging plant’s to grow. However unfortunately this is a process known as Succession, which means habitat’s move towards their most complex community, which can be very ideal for certain habitats but not others, and as a result can mean that soon there will be no bare ground left exposed for the many species who desire it.

Fear not though, as is the annual curse, there is plenty reason to trim & cut back your greenery and so there is always the opportunity to expose more soil as a annual to-do. Continually re-exposing new plots of bare soil gives rise to waves of opportunity to the swathes of species that will need them come the new season. And though the ground will need continual re-exposure, be cautious about overdoing it, so be sure to err on the side of less is more, until you get a feel for it.

There is another method of exposing soils that requires minimal effort, but may require some getting used to. Certain animals produce bare earth through their behaviours, and are very well known to all; burrowers, species such as rabbits, moles and badger. At the start I mentioned how that the longer any event occurs, the likelihood that a species will adapt & specialise to take advantage of the unique event & resources rises. In this case, these burrowing behaviours have been around since ancient times when creatures first learned they are safer underground, developing special features to unearth soil and creature their own dens, and as a result, they inadvertently let other species in on a banquet. If you have the patience to allow such species to settle in your garden, it’s likely you may enjoy both their presence and the benefits they bring.

Exposing Soil Management Methods

It only takes a few scattered patches to create a significant foothold to these specialist species, adding up to a few square metres if you have the capacity for it. Indeed, you can get a sense for how minimalist you can be when you can compare it to “Hoof & Trample” effects of grazing animals, who’s hooves cut into the grass and produce small, local hot spots for invertebrates – a level typical for this type of habitat.

You can keep it small, no need to tear up the garden!

Maintain an area, or several small areas, to action against the losses of encroaching vegetation. Even better, reclaim soils from vegetation as these soils have undergone changes in soil chemistry due to the presence & behaviour of the local plant-life. This soil, once exposed, is akin to the soils exposed in natural settings and allows for the full expression of a range of features to occur. Look to manage soils cyclically, rotating patches of scrub & shrubs back to soil periodically, to manage these areas most effectively.

As a beneficial note, it gives soils a chance to rest, recovering nutrients and aerating, in readiness for the following succession of future vegetation. Provided it is done at an appropriate pace & scale, it should maintain and enhance local flora & fauna communities.

Another approach is de-turfing, which has a particular value depending on your desired result. By stripping the layer that holds the majority of organic matter, it reduces the available nutrition in the soil. This can be ideal for those who wish to promote specific species, such as wildflowers, who especially adore such habitats due to the absolutely lowest level of competition by other plants. And, as a bonus, the removed turf can be used to repair other areas of bare soil, or used within a composter.

Take care of bared soils by not creating them on slopes, and keeping them somewhat contained by other vegetation. Rainfall on open soils can create run-off on slopes, dragging the soil with it and stripping the it away.

Soils are a vital resource for many reasons, overwhelmingly so for supporting our diverse flora and providing a stable annual resource for these species to derive their nutrition from.

Yet as I’m sure you’re aware by now, Ecology insists we look at all relationships between living organisms, as well as their environment. Not only flora, but fauna too have different requirements of our soils, it all depends on who’s asking

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