I never met my great-grandmother, but know that one of her favorite sayings was “A stitch-in-time, saves nine.” And this folk wisdom embodies a valuable lesson for every land manager using conservation reserves. Because, a little early, preventative maintenance can eliminate the need for a much larger repair job after that missing ‘stitch’ becomes a larger rip or hole.

Maintenance is every bit as important to integrity and functionality of shelterbelts, riparian and other conservation reserves. It is as important as their placement and establishment. Or as aptly put in another aphorism: a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link.

A Changing Climate

Throughout North America many have recent experience with the awesome forces of wind or water. Torrents of rain and snow melt, accumulate and flood across the landscape. At times, eroding way thousands of years of soil building in a matter of hours. And a record year for spring tornadoes is causing havoc, loss of life and property in the US mid- and south-west.

When faced with the full onslaught of natural forces, there is little to nothing you can do. A mature, deep rooted tree, is still no match for a tornado or hurricane-force wind. Likewise, the full-force flow of high-volume, fast-moving water can strip bare any riparian zone.

Trees and Shrubs Help Agriculture Adapt

But outside and at the edges of these extremes are zones that are able to remain intact and functional if they are properly structured and managed. A conservation planting or reserve can stand up to considerable stress. And they also function to reduce the extremes experienced downstream or leeward. Trees and shrubs along riparian areas will slow water flow. And this ‘absorbs’ some of the turbulent energy in a raging torrent. Likewise, trees and shrubs in shelterbelts and conservation reserves bend and sway in the wind. This removes energy from the airflow and deflects the main force of strong winds away from sensitive areas.

Maintenance is Critical

But maintenance is critical to keep the integrity spatially over the entire shelterbelt / reserve and also through time. This is probably most acute with conservation plantings. This because, all the individual components have been planted at the same time. If the area was not planted with a mixture of different-maturing species, the reserve will mature and die all at about the same time. In the absence of new tree or shrub recruitment, you are then faced with natural mortality over relatively short time span. And this greatly reduces or eliminates the reserve effectiveness.

It is therefore important to plan and plant a mix of species from the start. And also to take measures to protect natural regeneration or fill-plant species over time. Doing this will ensure that the system perpetuates and renews itself.

Special Considerations for Wind Breaks

Shelterbelts and conservation reserves established specifically for sheltering against the effects of wind, also require maintenance of the overall density. This is done through pruning or thinning to achieve the optimal range for buffering. Normally in the range of 50 to 70 %. Not dense enough, and a shelterbelt does not present enough of a barrier to the wind. Too dense, and they effectively become a solid barrier. A solid barries causes a back flow of air when wind forces against it, over which the main air stream can lift. The air then picks up speed and energy, and compounds the erosion potential.

Don’t Rip the Riparian

Care must be taken in riparian and conservation reserves designed to hold soil loss back from water erosion. Even a small gap in these reserves can pose vulnerability to a much larger area through gully erosion.

Read more on the importance of riparian health.

If an area is subjected to concentrated water flows, a stretch of only a few unprotected metres of bare soil can start to erode downward. This downcutting can move through the soil profile and into the subsoil. This gully can then feed itself. Undercutting the rooting layer of adjacent trees and shrubs, causing them of overturn and expand the zone of vulnerability. In the process thousands of years of soil building and hundreds of years of plant community development can be swept downstream in a few days or even a few hours.

A Stitch in Time…

Conduct routine inspection and corrective maintenance to identify and restore vulnerable areas in your conservation plantings, shelterbelts and riparian zones. It can be that ‘stitch-in-time’ to save soil and eliminate the need for a much larger restoration effort.