Miscanthus – for wildlife and game cover

There have been environmental studies done in the UK which show that Miscanthus provides excellent habitat for a variety of wildlife including nesting birds. To some extent Miscanthus New Zealand Ltd (MNZ) has discounted these reports because what is good in the UK is not necessarily good in NZ. But innovative people in NZ, almost all of whom come from a UK background, have been purchasing and planting Miscanthus specifically to provide safety and cover to game birds such as pheasants.

It was news to MNZ that there is a thriving commercial game bird shooting industry in New Zealand but at least three such businesses have now planted their own Miscanthus and seem very happy with the result. 

Apparently the Miscanthus allows the birds to be protected from predators such as hawks while also providing physical shelter from the elements – as has been discussed to some extent in relation to agricultural fauna in the article ‘Miscanthus – for farm shelter’.

That got MNZ staff thinking because it began to explain what has been observed over several years of trial evaluation. Firstly, Miscanthus stands do not provide good habitat for rodents. Apart from the compact bases of the plants, the lack of any seed means that there is nothing in such stands for them to eat. MNZ has not observed any evidence of rodent presence in New Zealand Miscanthus stands. But it is also obvious to anyone who observes wildlife that Miscanthus provides a good refuge, favoured by several species including indigenous fauna. But does it harbor any problem species?

When Miscanthus is first getting established, rabbits can make their presence felt by browsing on newly emerging leaves. But this damage tends to be localised and affects only individual plants or small groups. In NZ, this has only once proved to be a problem when there was a large uncontrolled rabbit population and a very small Miscanthus “trial”, surrounded by well-grazed pasture. With no rabbit control at all in this trial, the heavy pressure from the large rabbit population virtually eliminated the Miscanthus plantlets. In more typical situations, MNZ has observed that Miscanthus quite quickly outgrows the rabbit pressure and then creates conditions that are unsuitable for rabbits.

MNZ was originally curious and concerned about the possibility of wild pigs rooting up the rhizomes to eat them. However despite wild pigs being common in many areas around the world where Miscanthus is grown, there have to our knowledge been no reports of any damage to Miscanthus stands at all.

MNZ has also observed that at one or two sites, Pukeko can be somewhat of a problem at the establishment stage in the same way that they can be a problem with the establishment of maize – i.e. by pulling out the newly emerging plantlets. But in most cases the emerging Miscanthus simply outgrows the Pukeko predation. On a positive note, once the Miscanthus stand is established, it has been observed that Pukeko favour it as a refuge and we suspect that they may use it as cover for breeding.

Quail have also been commonly observed in and around Miscanthus stands and although no studies have been done, they may also be using the stands for refuge and perhaps for breeding.

As mentioned above, pheasants definitely benefit from having Miscanthus for cover and owners of game bird shooting operations with whom MNZ has spoken have indicated that their planting of Miscanthus was a sound decision.

Deer are the other wildlife that can be found in Miscanthus stands. MNZ has seen deer (indigenous) in and near a Miscanthus stand in Illinois where the farmer regarded them fondly and was not aware of any negative impact on the Miscanthus from the presence of the deer.

In New Zealand, the MNZ Miscanthus stand near Helensville has a significant population of fallow deer. They use the stand for cover once the Miscanthus has grown tall enough to hide them. If you walk through the stand in late December or January, you will find that in every little stand gap where there has been sufficient light to stimulate any grass growth, deer droppings are plentiful. When the stand is harvested six to nine months later, the deer congregate in the remaining stand until it is harvested to the point where there insufficient area left for them to hide. They then take off to the adjoining pine forest, where they remain until the re-growing Miscanthus in Spring is tall enough to again provide them with cover.

What this all means is that Miscanthus stands stimulate wildlife in general but do not support rodents. As Lincoln University work has shown, this includes indigenous fauna habitat, such as the skinks in Canterbury. If funding were available, formal research in commercial Miscanthus planted throughout New Zealand, could be expected to identify even more positive wildlife benefits from the establishment of such stands.

The next article should be on the value of Miscanthus for stabilising and otherwise improving soils.

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