Nature at Home - Shrubs and Grasslands | Carolinian Canada

Nature at Home - Shrubs and Grasslands

Shrublands and grasslands are cultural habitats that is, habitats that are the result of human activity either in the past or in the present. Large areas of original habitat have been cleared in Carolinian Canada, but some of these lands proved to be unsuitable for agriculture and have since been abandoned. Natural processes conspire to turn that land back into wild habitat. Typically, the land will go through a number of stages known as natural succession. Old pasture might remain as a grassland for a decade until goldenrods and asters invade to create a wildflower meadow which in turn is invaded by sumac, hawthorn and dogwood shrubs, their seeds scattered by robins, waxwings and starlings. Soon, sun-loving trees such as red cedar, ash and elm may enter the scene. Perhaps 50 to 70 years after abandonment the pasture will come to resemble a young forest, now ideal for the invasion of shade-tolerant trees such as Beech and Maple. The climax habitat depends on local conditions and nearby seed sources.

Old fields, hedgerows, stream buffers and grassy roadsides create a critical natural network within the Carolinian Canada landscape, connecting core natural areas with smaller natural fragments. Grasslands and shrublands provide cover, food and nesting sites for many rare species which are losing habitat elsewhere. In meadows, Monarch butterflies migrating south for the winter collect in the hundreds and thousands. The Eastern Yellow-breasted Chat is found primarily in shrub thickets. The few remaining American Badgers range widely by using the extensive network of meadows, thickets, hedgerows and hawthorn savannahs where it finds its favorite food, the Woodchuck.

Protected Grasslands and Shrublands

  • One of the oldest hawthorn savannas in Ontario is part of the Clear Creek Forest Nature Reserve in Chatham-Kent. It is the result of fields abandoned in the 1950’s.
  • Many private landowners choose to create and maintain old fields and hedgerows.

What’s the Problem?

As development and agriculture intensifies across Carolinian Canada, even hedgerows are becoming scarce. Old fields and buffers are becoming impacted and isolated or replaced with monoculture plantations. Our wild cultural habitats are often mistakenly considered ‘messy’ and dangerous. Native vines, shrubs and wildflowers which are important wildlife food and cover are targeted for removal or chemical control by people unaware of their useful functions on the landscape.

Recovery Strategies

  • Barn Owl
  • Henslow’s Sparrow
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • American Badger
  • Black Rat Snake
  • Blue Racer
  • Eastern Massassauga Rattlesnake

Habitat Saving Ideas

Think Big! Carolinian Canada’s Big Picture map envisions a connected system of natural cores and green corridors Everyone can help. Save butterfly habitat along a roadside from mowing or spraying. Allow a mix of native plants to take root along a wide fencerow.

Connect the Dots! Plant new trees strategically to fill natural gaps or connect two natural areas. Coordinate with neighbours across property lines and municipal boundaries.

Let it Go! Identify areas that you can let go wild. Many pieces of marginal land, estate lots or even tiny backyards can attract rare species, given time and care. Create a butterfly garden. Build a den for rare snakes. Backyard habitat guides can be obtained from Ontario Nature, the Canadian Wildlife Federation and Evergreen Also look for the many local organizations engaged in habitat restoration such as the Backyard Habitat Program of Essex County.


Plant Communities @ Risk

Many wild cultural plant communities are familiar to most landowners, such as Goldenrod Meadows, Sumac Raspberry and Poison Ivy Thickets, Hawthorn Cultural Savannah and Red Cedar Cultural Woodland. None are considered to be rare in Ontario because they result from human activity.

Species @ Risk

Hawthorn (Crataegus dilitata)

G4S1. Very Rare in Ontario

Hawthorns are a common tree, however, there are many species and some are rare. It is a low, wide-spreading, thorny tree, usually in thickets in abandoned pasture and hedgerows on clay and till soils. Originally, hawthorns in Carolinian Canada grew on small disturbed open areas mainly along river slopes where slumping might occur. After widespread clearing, hawthorns invaded large areas, hybridizing extensively. Today, hybrids are more common.

Where? In Canada, this hawthorn is found in two isolated pockets in the Niagara Peninsula and extreme southwestern Ontario, the only places where the species appears to have crossed the Great Lakes from its range in the south.

How many? In Canada, a few dozen plants

What’s the problem? Hawthorn Cultural Savannah is often re-cleared for agriculture or urban development. Our culture considers hawthorns weeds and fails to recognize rare species. Canopy trees shade hawthorns during natural succession.

How to Help! Maintain mixed, mature hedgerows. Allow hawthorn growth in pastures.


American Badger Taxidea taxus

G5S2S3 Endangered in Canada.

The American Badger is a large, heavy-bodied, short-legged member of the weasel family. The body fur is yellowish-grey and grizzled on the back. It is found mainly in grasslands, old fields, pastures, and rarely in woodland. It has a home range of up to 500 square km.

Where? In Canada, southern B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, northwestern Ontario and southern Ontario. The subspecies, jacksoni, is primarily restricted to the Carolinian Zone with an outlier population in southern Bruce and Grey Counties.

How many? Less than 200

What’s the problem? Habitat loss and fragmentation

How to Help! Maintain large networks of grasslands.


Eastern Yellow-breasted Chat Icteria virens

G5S2S3 Special Concern in Canada. Vulnerable in Ontario.

This large warbler is bright yellow on the throat and breast, white on the belly and olive green on the back. It nests in thickets and brushy tangles beside streams or ponds and in old overgrown brushy clearings.

Where? In Canada, in southern B.C., Alberta, and Saskatchewan. In Ontario, it is found primarily at Point Pelee and on Pelee Island.

How many? Numbers are declining. In Ontario, perhaps 10 to 30 pairs

What’s the problem? Loss of habitat through clearing or natural succession of habitat to forest

How to Help! Manage for brushy fields and thickets, especially near streams and ponds.


Blue Racer Coluber constrictor

G5S1 Endangered In Canada and Ontario.

This long slender snake has a whip-like tail, an elongated head, relatively large eyes and smooth lustrous scales. It is one of Ontario’s largest snakes — adults may reach up to 1.5 m long. It is found in old fields, hedgerows, shrubby fence-lines, thickets and open woodlots.

Where? In Canada, this species is restricted to Pelee Island, and was formerly found at Pinery Provincial Park.

How many? Unknown.

What’s the problem? Loss of habitat, roadkill, persecution

How to Help! Maintain habitat and create winter den sites.


Wild Indigo Duskywing Erynnis baptistae

G5S1. Very Rare in Ontario

This butterfly is dark chocolate brown on the inside and purplish to light brown on the outside. Prime habitats are dry sandy fields and roadsides where the caterpillar food plant, Wild Indigo, is found. Recently, this butterfly has switched its food preference to Crown-vetch and may also eat Tick-trefoil. Increasingly, it has been reported spreading along highways where Crown-vetch has been planted for erosion control.

Where? In Canada, restricted to the Carolinian Life Zone in a few scattered locations

How many? Unknown

What’s the problem? Loss of caterpillar food plant

How to Help! Plant caterpillar food plants.

Monarch Danaus plexippus

G4S4 Special Concern in Canada.

One of our most readily recognized butterflies with distinctive orange and black wings. The Monarch is of special concern because its wintering grounds in Mexico are threatened by extensive logging. Prime Ontario habitats are open spaces, fields, and meadows where the caterpillar food plant, milkweed, is found. Spectacular migrations can be viewed annually at Point Pelee National Park.

Where? In southern Canada, Monarchs are found from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island.

How many? Common to abundant although this varies from year to year

What’s the problem? Pesticides, loss of food plants

How to Help! Create meadows or garden beds with the food plants for caterpillars and nectar flowers for adults.



Carolinian Canada Coalition 2009

Content based on 2004 guide by Michelle Kanter, Dave Martin, Veronique LeHouk, and Jane Bowles

Many Thanks to Photographers who donated their work for this project:
Jane Bowles, Allen Woodliffe, John Ambrose, Scott Gillingwater, Ben Porchuk, Rob Willson, Mathis Nativik, Shawn Staton, David Mihilik, Joe Milner, George Brackx, Kevin Railsback, Hamilton Conservation Authority, Essex Region Conservation Authority, Margaret Pickles, Leora Berman, Donald Kirk, Upper Thames River Conservation Authority, Larry Lamb, Peggy Hurst, Michelle Kanter, Gregory Peck, Jim Flynn and Rick Battson. 

Thanks also to expert support from Dan Kraus, Mike Nelson and Paul Smith.

 Assistance for this project was provided by the Ministry of Natural Resources.


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