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Bringing back the prairie

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By Walt Reichert

Nearly all of the prairie settlers found on their way across North America is now gone. But if efforts at Red Orchard Park pan out, visitors can get an idea what those early settlers may have seen when the crossed the country in their covered wagons. And they may hear the increasingly rare call of the bobwhite quail to boot.

On Tuesday, Shelbyville/Shelby County Parks workers planted 15 acres in Red Orchard Park to a mix of grasses that mimic those found in the short grass prairies of bygone days. Kentucky originally had hundreds of thousands of acres of prairie lands.

The seed mixture contains grasses (little bluestem, sideoats grama and Virginia rye) along with a forb mix, which includes several types of wildflowers. In a couple of years, the mixture will grow about waist-high and offer a home to wildlife, especially ground-nesting songbirds and quail. The prairie offers a haven for the insects the birds need when their nestlings need to be fed and a safe place to forage for food away from predators.

The populations of some of those birds that found home in the grasslands have declined by as much as 80 percent in the last 40 years because the meadows and hedgerows where they thrived have been torn out and replaced with cropped fields or hayfields and pastures where fescue is the dominant species.

The local Quail Forever group donated the $1,200 worth of seed to plant the 15 acres at Red Orchard. Broc Bradley, secretary-treasurer of the organization, said the prairie mix benefits all wildlife, not just quail.

"It brings in butterflies, songbirds," Bradley said. "It's all about habitat. It's the old 'build it and they will come' theory."

Bradley called the fescue grass that today dominates most of Kentucky's grasslands "a biological desert."

The prairie restoration at Red Orchard is another in an effort to restore Kentucky native habitat on the property donated to the county by Clarence Miller two years ago. Earlier this year, the state Division of Forestry planted hundreds of native Kentucky trees on the property.

Parks Director Clay Cottongim said the prairie restoration is not only advantageous to wildlife, it is good for the parks department. It will cut down on mowing.

"If the price of gas gets any higher, we may have to plant this over the whole park," Cottongim said.

Plant wildlife habitat

Farmers and landowners can take advantage of offers by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and add habitat that benefits wildlife on their acreage at little or no cost. For information, call the department's toll-free number at 1-800-858-1544.