They’re the green places amidst the brown in the heat of a dry August — those spaces between the land and water where life grows abundantly, where roots drive down deep, where animals graze and birds nest.
Those small but mighty riparian areas don’t get the credit — or the care — that they deserve.
“In the Prairies, they make up maybe five per cent of the landscape at most — it’s more like two per cent in many areas,” said Norine Ambrose, executive director of Cows and Fish. “But they’re really critical, important places, despite their small size.”
No two riparian areas (the transition zone between land and a water body or wetland) are the same, said Ambrose in a recent Cows and Fish virtual grazing school.
“They aren’t neat and tidy,” she said. “Every piece of landscape is unique, so the width of them varies depending on that influence zone is — that transition between the wet and the dry.”
Having “the right structural integrity” is key to their functionality.
“It’s the deep-binding roots — the natural rebar — that holds it all together,” said Ambrose, adding vegetation improves the texture and quality of the soil, creating “good mud.”
“It’s the physical thing that holds on to and slows down the water, allowing all the sediment particles to be trapped on land and pulled out of our waterways,” she said. “That good mud is what builds our rich soils.”
Vegetation and mud combine to create meandering streams and rivers that force the water to go slower, reducing erosion and improving moisture collection.
“It can’t go as quick as it can in a straight line. If we take out those meanders and that vegetation — that friction — it races,” she said.
“We want the water to slow down and sink in. If we don’t store it, it doesn’t have an opportunity to come back into the system.”
That impacts the wildlife that depend on riparian areas, she added.
“About 80 per cent of our fish and wildlife populations in Alberta rely on this two per cent of the landscape. It’s a really important piece of landscape for biological diversity.”
But riparian areas are also important for grazing.
“We know that riparian areas are extremely productive places for forage — two to five times, and even up to 10 times, the productivity of surrounding uplands,” said Ambrose. “They have that deep, rich soil with extra moisture, so taking care of them as a grazing resource is really important to ensure we have that productivity and health into the future.”
The things that bind
The health of these areas is largely dictated by the way the land is managed around them, but these functions, and their effects on the land, can be tricky to measure, said Ambrose. That’s why Cows and Fish hasw created riparian health assessments to help producers identify any problems.
“How do we look for the right kinds of things to indicate riparian health, even if we can’t measure them?”
The health assessments are in depth (and a little complex for the average person), but there are some simple things grazers can look out for.
The first is looking at how much of the site is covered in plants, including things such as plant distribution and canopy cover. More plants are better, but the types of plants present are important, too.
Some are considered ‘decreasers,’ in that they decrease in dominance as grazing or other disturbances intensify. They are typically the deep-rooted types you want to see in a riparian area. Others, called ‘increasers,’ are more tolerant of disturbance and tend to increase to fill the gaps left by the decreasers.
“If you have a lot of these species on your site, they’re not deep rooted, and they are a concern,” she said. “They don’t have those structural pieces that would be needed.”
Deeper-rooted trees and shrubs are also an important consideration (though not all locations or soil types support them).
“For the most part, most of our riparian areas support some woody plants,” she said. “In general, healthier sites have more trees and shrubs and taller vegetation. We want to have their deep, binding roots to hold the system together.”
Ask the right questions
A health assessment should also look at “human-caused bare ground.”
“Cattle are a human agent, so if we’ve got a lot of bare ground that we’re seeing on a site, it’s not performing those functions that we’d expect,” said Ambrose.
“Grazing is part of our landscape and has been part of our landscape before settlement. It’s just about how we manage our grazing that’s important.”
Managing grazing effectively in riparian areas comes back to four key principles that apply across all grazed lands — balance forage supply with demand, avoid grazing during vulnerable periods, distribute livestock impacts across the landscape, and allow for effective rest.
What that looks like in practice will be different from farm to farm.
“How do we change or maintain our practices to keep a healthy site or bring it back if it’s missing some of those aspects?” asked Ambrose. “Finding practical solutions for those principles is really important. It has to actually work.”
That starts with asking the right questions of your land — and your management. Does the site have deep-binding roots? Are there trees and shrubs? Is there diverse vegetation covering the ground? Are there physical impacts from cattle or other human activities? And which management practices could improve those parameters of health?
“It’s not about ‘you should do this.’ It’s more about ‘you should think about this,’” said Ambrose. “(These ideas) can be useful — but it’s about how we apply them. What are we trying to achieve by providing these different types of techniques?
“It’s better to think about this as an opportunity to improve the management and the productivity of the site so that it’s healthier.”
Cows and Fish has a number of free publications and tools for managing riparian areas at cowsandfish.org.