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Oakes Farms, Bledsoe, TN

Featured Site Created By Jared Oakes: SIYANKAN

Farming and managing land for wildlife are increasingly interrelated goals for farmers concerned about conservation. Oakes Farms is an example of such a synergy. The manager of this property is an avid eBirder who is dedicated to conserving landscape features for birds and wildlife–such as retaining and planting native plants. This farm is a model of how positive landscape features can be incorporated into our properties to meet business needs while also increasing biodiversity.

EcoRegion: Eastern Broadleaf Forest (Oceanic) Province
Planting Zone: 7a

What work has been done to improve this site for birds and other wildlife? How long did it take?

Landscape from Middle Field

Photo © Jared Oakes

A farmer loves the land, almost by definition. For us, taking care of wildlife is often a matter of small decisions: to leave a snag standing, or to pile brush rather than burn it. Often, these little measures have a big effect. (When we trimmed a hickory last winter, we piled the brush across the fence; the number of sparrows increased within a day, and that corner is now the best place on the farm for spotting small songbirds.)

Main Pond

Photo © Jared Oakes

On a larger scale, caring for wildlife goes hand in hand with caring for livestock. A few years ago we dug a large, new pond as part of a plan to improve our cattle’s water supply; at the same time, we fenced the pond off to protect water quality downstream. As a result, the pond has become a frequented stopover point for migrating waterfowl. In several places we have encouraged small groves of trees to grow. This is a long-term project, but it provides shade for our animals and home for creatures that prefer open groves or mixed habitat. Beginning next year, we are intending to sow some of our pasture with native grasses. Reestablishing native pastures will improve our cattle’s summer forage while also benefiting the local insect population and everything that depends on it.

Fire Pink (Silene virginica)

Photo © Jared Oakes

I’ve always had a love for the native plants of the South, and wherever we find local berry- or fruit-producing trees, I try to protect them and allow them to grow (unless, of course, they are poisonous or otherwise a danger.) I also try to teach my sons good management practices, starting with leaving nesting birds alone and not picking every wildflower in the bunch. Some day, this will be their show, and if they haven’t learned from me how to love and care for the land, all my effort in it will be for naught.

What are some successes that you've seen since the improvements were made? (alternatively, "What are you most proud of, or excited to share about this site?")

Green Heron

Photo © Jared Oakes

Our ponds have had the most visible impact on the local bird population. So far this year we have seen twelve species of waterfowl including, four ducks, four herons, two egrets, one cormorant, and a vagrant Tricolored Heron. The ponds are also frequented by Barn Swallows, Red-winged Blackbirds, and a multitude of dragonflies. Perhaps the most fascinating thing, however, is how different one part of the farm can be from another. One would think, as easily as birds fly and as generally similar the landscape is across our property, that the same birds would occur throughout. In truth, however, every field has its own set of birds and its own personality. American Robins and Northern Cardinals are found near the house and along the bushier parts of the creek, but are rarely seen elsewhere. Pigeons and doves live near the barn and creep feeder, rarely flying further than the trees in the middle field. The Brown-headed Cowbirds, European Starlings, and swallows congregate wherever the herd is. In the north field, a wooded dell contains a whole collection of birds that, though common in the general area, rarely if ever appear elsewhere on the farm. One thing this has taught us is that even small changes affect the pattern. Cutting a small stand of trees or draining a low wet area might make a group of birds disappear from the farm entirely, to be replaced by another set more congenial to the new environment.
Red-Winged Blackbird Nest

Photo © Jared Oakes

Favorite wildlife sighting: Last year, my father saw a Bald Eagle fly over. I have a soft spot for the Pileated Woodpecker who greeted us when we returned from Easter services.

Are there any tough decisions that had to be made regarding its management? How were they handled?

Grazing Cattle

Photo © Jared Oakes

We raise registered Angus cattle and, at the end of the day, they have to come first. Sometimes, this means doing things like cutting down a cherry tree I’d rather leave standing, since its leaves can poison cattle.

However, it is often possible to find solutions that benefit both livestock and wildlife. I’ve already mentioned the new pond and native grasses. Recently, we have begun buying all of our hay instead of cutting it, which lets us better utilize our pastures while protecting our ground nesters at the same time. These sorts of decisions improve our cattle operation while also working to the advantage of wilder creatures. Ultimately, men, livestock, and wildlife have to share the same land indefinitely, and making decisions with that in mind is often the key to success.