‘Pests’ are powerful allies in effort for healthy waters

Courtesy of Natural Resources Conservation Service
Natural Resources Conservation Service

By Marlene A. Condon

Soil constitutes the foundation that supports plant and animal life on Earth. Consisting of broken-down rock and the remains of organisms that once existed, it brings forth new life and takes back the old.

Soil is worth more than its weight in gold, yet humans tend to treat it as if it has little value and as if its loss is neither important nor consequential.

As a result, we don’t give much thought to soil erosion during rain storms, even though it can be quite visible.

In Charlottesville, for example, the Rivanna River that runs smack through the city appears red during and after every rain storm. That obvious red coloring represents clay soil leaving the area, and it’s a serious problem for the local backyards and farmlands from which it came, as well as for the Chesapeake Bay to which it flows.

The loss of soil and nutrients negatively affects the landscape by reducing its productivity. When runoff from throughout the watershed reaches the Chesapeake Bay, it causes the die-off of underwater grasses that are needed by water-dwelling organisms to survive.

Excess nutrients cause algal blooms that cloud the water and starve it of oxygen while suspended soil blocks sunlight necessary to plants. Without access to sunlight, grasses can’t photosynthesize, or make food — and they die.

The loss of these plants affects the survivability of animals, such as young striped bass (Morone saxatilis) and blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus) — two economically important Bay species — that are dependent on underwater grasses for shelter from predation.

The grasses also oxygenate water, which benefits most aquatic animal life. And, well-established areas of grasses reduce erosion along shorelines during storms that roil the water.

There’s a simple, commonsense solution to help save the Chesapeake Bay as well as our yards and farmland from the movement of sediment: We should save the pests!

When burrowing animals, such as moles, voles, mice, groundhogs, chipmunks, ants, termites, grubs and cicadas — animals usually thought of as pests — make openings at the surface of the ground, and tunnels or burrows underground, they create air spaces into which rainwater can quickly disappear.

By accepting these critters and allowing them to coexist with us, we and the Bay receive immediate assistance limiting water runoff that carries away our priceless soil.

As an added bonus, plants are naturally irrigated and groundwater supplies are naturally recharged. But there’s more: Every single one of these “pests” plays a vital role in keeping the environment functioning properly.

Consider moles and grubs, which people love to hate. Moles are disliked because of the upraised tunnels they make when traveling through the soil to eat soil-dwelling creatures, such as grubs.

People don’t want mole tunnels in their yards because lawnmowers scalp the upraised earth and their feet sink into it as they walk. But we should feel grateful instead of aggravated.

First of all, tunnels provides natural aeration in a yard so the homeowner doesn’t need to pay for man-made aeration services to allow air to reach the roots of their plants.

Second, the mole that made the tunnel is announcing that there’s an overpopulation of soil creatures and that it’s going to reduce their populations — free of charge — before they cause problems for healthy plants.

Take, for example, grubs. The function of a grub is to recycle dead plant roots so they don’t sit there forever taking up precious space that could instead be used by a living plant. But if someone doesn’t allow the mole to do its job of limiting the numbers of grubs, these beetle larvae will become overpopulated.

When that happens, the grubs will eventually run out of their preferred food — dead plant roots — and start eating what’s left — the roots of healthy plants — to survive.

Therefore, the root cause of people’s dislike of both grubs and moles can be traced to their intolerance of mole tunnels. Yet these tunnels can be easily fixed by simply tamping them down. During the next rain, water will seep into the air spaces of the squished tunnel and it’ll be difficult to tell it had ever been there.

Your acceptance of a mole will have helped your yard and the Chesapeake Bay.

Marlene A. Condon, author of “The Nature-friendly Garden,” believes saving the natural world begins in one’s own backyard. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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