On-Farm Natural Habitats: What They Are and Why They Matter

Our environment, economy and society have changed drastically over the course of the last century. People from the past could have scarcely imagined the world we live in today— especially the amount of deforestation that has occurred. Nearly half of all deforestation since the last ice age (10,000 years ago) has taken place in the last century. 

In most cases, this previously undisturbed land was converted into farmland to meet the demands of a growing population. Agriculture has been one of the main contributors to the decline in natural habitats and the loss of biodiversity around the world. This growing biodiversity crisis is further exacerbated by climate change–severe weather, pollution, invasive species and disease presents just as much of a threat to the natural world as it does to humanity.  

With so many external stressors threatening our natural ecosystems, some farmers have turned to rebuilding or preserving natural spaces on their farmland. If done correctly, this practice can prove enormously beneficial to the farm and its surrounding environment. So what kinds of natural landscapes can farmers rebuild, and what kind of care will these new spaces require?

Why Does Biodiversity Matter?

Climate change and biodiversity loss are the twin crises of our time. The good news is that they can be tackled together. Nature-based climate solutions like restoring and conserving natural areas on farms can help to reduce emissions, sequester carbon and create space for biodiversity. Increased biodiversity provides countless benefits, including:

  • Providing food, water, medicine and other natural resources;
  • Filtering pollution and keeping the climate temperate;
  • Acting as a buffer in natural disasters; 
  • Acting as a habitat to many beneficial organisms; 
  • Acting as a source of inspiration in the arts and sciences;
  • Serving as a source of spiritual and emotional wellbeing and enrichment as well as providing a sense of place and belonging; and
  • Sustaining key players in the earth’s many cycles such as the water, nitrogen and carbon cycles.

Failing to protect the limited biodiversity that is left is to abandon humanity’s oldest and greatest ally. To better adapt to the threat of climate change, farm systems must strengthen and sustain biodiversity above and below the ground.  To read more about the value of biodiversity in agricultural systems, check out our article on Biodiversity Loss, Agriculture and Climate Change.

Threats To The Farm

When considering building natural landscapes, many farmers are concerned that these wild spaces will become a source of pests and weeds. These can be avoided with careful management– and in some cases, increased wildlife can be beneficial to the farm ecosystem. 

Biodiversity and Pests

Pests can be extremely problematic on the farm. Worldwide, farmers lose an average of 10-16 percent of their annual harvest to pests and diseases. A single pest problem can lead to a total crop failure, taking a heavy toll on profit margins. With such disastrous consequences looming, it’s no wonder that farmers are skeptical of anything that would create a hospitable environment for these unwanted visitors.

Counterintuitively, boosting biodiversity can help keep pest problems in check while biodiversity loss can encourage ongoing pest problems. This is due to the fact that species variety encourages species evenness. Biodiversity encourages the presence of beneficial predators like spiders, raptor birds, ladybugs and larger mammals to keep smaller ecological players in check. 

On the flipside, farming systems that push out biodiversity create an empty environment without competition and an endless supply of a single food source, making the farm vulnerable to a recurring pest problem. 

Biodiversity and Weeds

Weeds are another proverbial (and literal) thorn in the side of Canadian farmers. Weed seeds can be buried deep underground through cultivation and remain dormant for decades, creating a weed cycle that can last for a farmer’s entire career.

For decades, many Canadian farmers only had two weed management strategies— repeated application of herbicides and tillage. In addition to the environmental damages that have resulted from these two strategies, heavy applications of herbicides have led to the emergence of glyphosate-resistant weeds and yet does not address the root cause of the problem. 

Traditional single-crop farming systems involve a lot of open space that would not exist in a natural environment. Soil is left uncovered, certain soil nutrients go unused and spaces between plants are just filled with sunlight–a perfect opportunity akin to leaving a table filled with food in a public park. Something or someone is bound to come along and help themselves. Weeds are nature’s way of filling the empty space and covering the soil—so if farmers address this issue themselves, they can break up weed cycles entirely and push them out of a farm’s field systems, regardless of whether they have areas of forest, grassland, or wetland on their land or not.

While some weeds can contribute to biodiversity, invasive weed species can choke out other plants—so it is important to extend ecological weed management measures into a farm’s natural area as well. Creating paths through these undisturbed areas allows for easier monitoring in case any particularly invasive weed populations spring up. It is easier to clear away small outbreaks of troublesome weeds than to deal with a widespread invasion. You can explore a variety of alternative weed management tactics in forested areas:

Source: https://www.invasive.org/gist/products/handbook/methods-handbook.pdf

Types of On-Farm Natural Landscapes


Planting trees and shrubs in fields alongside crops is an old farming technique that has been documented on every continent at some point throughout human history and is known to promote biodiversity. In addition to serving as a habitat for benign or beneficial organisms, agroforestry can have other benefits for biodiversity such as serving as a safe spot for migratory animals. Since it mimics a natural environment, agroforestry is a great way to mitigate the effects of soil erosion and water pollution. If fruit, nut or maple trees are planted, they can serve as an extra source of diversified income for the farmer. Agroforestry can also improve a farm’s ability to sequester carbon in the soil and build up soil organic matter, contributing to the fight against climate change.

Waste Sloughs and Buffer Strips

Farmers can also support biodiversity by keeping portions of their land wooded, especially land often referred to as waste sloughs, as seen in Dr. Andrew Hammermeister’s presentation: The Future of Biodiversity. Waste sloughs are natural lowlands prone to flooding and marshlike conditions. They serve little purpose to a farm’s agricultural system and are often ripped up purely to reduce weed risk. One way to build up these waste sloughs is to plant a variety of long grass species along both sides of the banks of any natural water flow. This can greatly reduce soil erosion, improve water quality and promote aquatic biodiversity. These areas can also have trees or shrubs added to them to turn them into buffer strips. Planting a variety of native species, including non-woody plants such as wildflowers and legumes, will enhance the space’s value to other species.

Farmers can tailor their wild spaces to attract specific species by following the motto “if you build it, they will come.” Farmers can select plants that will serve as a food source (or the food source of the food source in the case of wishing to attract carnivores like foxes or owls) and shelter for the desired species. Oaks, for instance, serve as an important food source to many animals and planting a mixture of red and white oaks will ensure an annual harvest of acorns. Additional features like nesting boxes can be added to further encourage the presence of specific wildlife.

To maximize the benefits of these natural spaces, make them as wide as possible. Many small animals will use these spaces as nesting and breeding areas and will need enough space to hide and mate in peace from the predators that roam the perimeters–humans included. Twenty metres on either side of the waterway will provide animals with enough cover.

Restoring and Enhancing Wetlands

Wetlands are extremely environmentally beneficial, serving as vital ecosystems for cycling water and storing carbon. They can easily complement other water management infrastructure such as dams, culverts, stormwater ponds and water treatment plants. On a global scale, 87 percent of wetlands have been drained, so adding wetlands to farms makes a great environmental contribution. Wetlands are also great for preventing runoff: compared to other bodies of water that collect and pool nutrients like phosphorus downstream, wetlands act as nutrient sinks and filter water. 

You will need to consult your region’s regulations and gather the correct permits to proceed with restoring a wetland. Once a farm has gained approval, restoring a wetland can be done by blocking drainage tiles and installing a basic water control structure. 

Duck Unlimited Canada’s Wetland Conversation Partner Program, funded by the government of Ontario, is designed to help Ontario’s landowners restore natural wetlands on their property.

When planning the features of a wetland, consider the goals of the landscape. Attracting waterfowl, for instance, requires a mixture of aquatic-emerging vegetation and open water space. To keep a wetland from supporting a persistent mosquito population, ensure that water levels are deep enough to support mosquito predators like frogs and dragonflies.

Pasture Land Enhancement

Rotational grazing is the process of breaking up pastures into smaller paddocks using moveable electric fencing. The herd is only allowed to graze in a single paddock for a short period of time (usually no longer than three days) before being moved to the next paddock. This provides each paddock a recovery period of anywhere between 50 to 60 days before it is grazed again, resulting in luscious vegetation for the herd to feed on while also acting as a carbon sink. 

Farmers can work to improve the biodiversity of their resting paddocks. Planting a variety of grasses, legumes and winter wheat will effectively fill out the soil’s real estate both above and below ground and provide a full diet of foliage for the herd. These grasses also provide food, cover, and nesting areas for many species of threatened grassland birds.

Grassland birds require four to five weeks to build a nest, hatch their eggs and raise their young, so giving each paddock a resting period within that time frame gives the birds the best chance to utilize the land. Although there is understandable concern that the herd will trample the nests once they are let back into a paddock, studies have shown that herds do not target the nests and trampling occurs only accidentally, its likelihood increasing the longer the herd is in the paddock. There are many ways to limit the damage herds do to these nesting sites:

  • During nesting season, give paddocks with a high volume of nesting sites as long of a rest period as possible. Open pastures that are far away from trees will likely have the most nesting sites. 
  • Leave at least four inches of growth in the paddocks at any given time. This will not only provide the birds with ample cover and food but will also improve the plant recovery rate. 
  • Move the herd frequently during nesting season, at least once a day. This will limit the amount of damage done to the nesting sites by the herd.

Alternatively, Silvopasture is the practice of integrating grazing livestock with trees and foliage to create a mutually beneficial system that strengthens farm resilience. An effective method of incorporating wooded areas of farmland into the production system, it offers another form of managed grazing that increases biodiversity and allows for the diversification of income streams. Learn more about the benefits and challenges of silvopasture in the EFAO’s interview with Val Steinmann of Heartwood Farm.

UpKeep For Natural Landscapes

Maintaining the natural landscapes that are already present on a farm can be just as important as establishing new ones. Leaving a wild area to its own whims is not an approach that will guarantee success or biodiversity. If a landscape is left unattended, it could become overrun with invasive species or weeds or deteriorate to a state of undesirable development. You can consult the local conservation authority to explore site-specific options for maintaining  your natural landscape. Maintenance should be conducted on an ongoing basis and can include the following measures, based on the type of natural landscape and conservation recommendations:

Grassland Maintenance: While many animals enjoy tall grasses for cover and food, overgrowth will make it difficult for animals to walk through the grasses. Disking every four to five years to carve paths through the grasses will improve animal mobility and prevent a single grass species from becoming dominant. Another way to contend with grass population is through controlled burning. This will stimulate plant growth, remove litter and prevent excessive woody growth. While mowing doesn’t serve as a substitute for burning since it doesn’t get rid of the litter, it can still be a suitable form of upkeep and will keep weeds at bay. Timing your cuts in accordance to the season will be an important element in your upkeep. Make sure all of these measures occur outside of the nesting season

Wooded Area Maintenance: A topic complicated enough to be its own article, maintaining forested areas is vital for improving biodiversity. Trees should be thinned every ten to fifteen years to prevent the forest from becoming choked and promote the growth of fewer but higher-quality trees. Fewer trees will minimize potential forest fire damage by reducing ground litter. This forest harvest can prove to be a source of income. The forest should also be monitored for any features that threaten biodiversity such as invasive species, disease or animal damage. Eliminating or mitigating these threats will ensure continued growth.

Wetland Maintenance: During the first six months after establishing a wetland, the newly established ecosystem should be inspected at least twice after every significant rainfall. During these inspections, check for any areas of erosion or bare spots in vegetation and reseed or replant as needed to keep these bare spots from damaging the wetland. After the first year, annual routine maintenance needs to be done to ensure the quality of the wetland. Such maintenance activities include:

  • Removing debris; 
  • Repairing eroded areas, structural damage or clogs in the drainage system;   
  • Removing the burrows of problematic animals; 
  • Removing excessive woody vegetation, invasive species and overgrown vegetation 

Closing Thoughts 

Natural landscapes can prove extremely useful to farmers, their families and the community at large. While incorporating natural landscapes onto farms can be a bit of a learning curve, it is well worth the effort. Imagine farms being surrounded by beautiful and luscious spaces for farmers and their families to enjoy, where research can be done and where aspects of these wild spaces can even be harvested or utilized for profit.

In recent years, there’s been growing interest in regulatory standards focused on holistic and sustainable farm systems, which rely on innovation and regeneration to strengthen farm resilience and improve biodiversity. In this webinar, Dr. Andrew Hammermeister of the Organic Agriculture Center of Canada discusses the ins and outs of regenerative certification and organic 3.0, two certification standards that aim to meet the demand for enhanced sustainability regulation.

Farmers are the stewards of the land they tend—they are responsible for the woods, the rivers and the animals that live there. If they do not look after these natural spaces, no one will. Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) community programs help communities across Canada address environmental challenges through partnerships with local farmers, community stakeholders, environmental specialists and more. The program is designed to help communities support their farmers and ranchers in establishing environmental projects and alternative land management practices. Financial and logistical support is available for farmers to develop project proposals that meet their sustainability goals, boost their resilience and strengthen their community’s ecosystems. Learn more about ALUS community programs here.

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