Change is all around us – in our lives and in nature. In fact, nature is at its best when it’s changing, gradually and from sudden events like storms or fires. Whether fast or slow, change is part of an important natural process called succession.
Ecological succession is the change in plant and animal communities over time. When you’re attuned to succession, you can see it all around you. Ponds evolve into marshes and swamps. Shrubs and trees transform open areas into forests. Forest succession occurs over many decades, but you can see changes happening right before your eyes. You just have to know what to look for so you can read nature’s story.
What to look for
Take a retired farm field for example. At first, grasses, flowers and shrubs move in as new tenants, along with sun-loving pioneer tree species. These early growers change the condition of the land and make way for other species which grow better in the shade and shelter of the pioneer trees.
Over time, the young forest develops into a mature forest with great diversity and larger trees. Forest succession doesn’t stop there. As a forest continues to age, some trees will die. When they fall, it opens up the forest canopy and creates clearings where the sun peaks through, giving a boost for younger trees to grow. This process occurs naturally with little human intervention. Landowners should give their forest a helping hand when forests experience bigger stresses like widespread disease, invasive species and other disturbances.
To restore lost forests on the landscape, we can take a page from natures’ playbook. Planting an old field with rows of coniferous seedlings such as red and white pine and white spruce creates a ‘nursery’ to kick start the process of forest succession. A plantation forest needs the right kind of tender loving care and the use of good management practices to transition it to a natural forest with a diversity of tree species.
Natural spaces all around us are continually moving through succession. If allowed to unfold according to natural processes, nature knows exactly what to do. Learning how to recognize disturbances that threaten a forest’s survival is important so steps to maintain its health and can be taken at each stage of succession.
Discover how to recognize the changes in wetlands and forests on your property at CVC’s Nature at its Best workshop September 23.