Town weighs longer grass vs.protecting public health
ANCRAM–They had the talk at the Ancram Town Board meeting May 17, only it wasn’t about the birds and the bees, it was about the birds and the ticks and what’s going on in the tall grass.
Town resident Libby McKee told the board that the town should make haste to mow the tall grass in the field adjacent to the Town Hall and the new playground behind it. The field, said Ms. McKee, is a breeding ground for ticks; and anyone wandering into the high grass would be at increased risk of contracting Lyme disease.
Columbia County is the “world capital” of tick-borne disease, noted resident Mike Citrin.
But Councilwoman Madeleine Israel spoke up, saying she had recently read a report from the town Conservation Advisory Council (CAC) about delaying mowing until mid-to-late July to allow ground-nesting grassland birds to successfully raise their young. The report, obtained by The Columbia Paper, says that bobolinks, Eastern meadowlarks, grasshopper and vesper sparrows, and upland sandpipers are declining in numbers due to loss of grassland habitat. “Grassland birds benefit farms and landowners by reducing populations of potentially harmful insects like grasshoppers, caterpillars, weevils, cutworms, beetles and flies,” the report says.
“But our children are so important,” said Ms. McKee, “the risk of contracting Lyme [or other diseases] from ticks and mosquitoes outweighs the necessity to save some birds. Those insects are out there breeding. It’s not healthy for our children. We need to look out for our children more than nesting birds.”
Councilwoman Israel noted that the CAC was just suggesting a delay in mowing until July.
“But the spring is the worst, we should not wait, the ticks are out there breeding,” Ms. McKee insisted.
Ancram resident Ann Rader, who has lived here for 21 years, said she knows “the ticks are just everywhere.” But it’s up to parents to check their youngsters for ticks and keep them safe, she said. “Birds are valuable, [maintaining] the whole ecology is important. I’ve stood on my own lawn, which is mowed, looked down and saw a tick crawling on my foot.”
So does mowing the lawn decrease the number of ticks?
According to Rensselaer County Cooperative Extension Educator David Chinery, who writes the Green Thoughts column for this newspaper, the answer is yes.
While ticks can be found on any kind of vegetation, ticks are less likely to hang out in low-cut grass and prefer taller vegetation, said Mr. Chinery.
Though he has no hard figures on the matter, Mr. Chinery said that anecdotally the only time he has found ticks on himself was when he was in the woods or wading into brushy areas.
The only way a tick on the ground can latch on to a person would be to hop on a shoe, which leaves the insect with a mighty long way to climb, said Mr. Chinery, noting ticks much prefer being higher off the ground, snagging a knee or a thigh and climbing up from there in search of their “blood meal.”
AmericanLawnGuide.com, a website dedicated to lawn care, agrees with Mr. Chinery, noting, “Ticks are generally never a problem on lawns which are kept well maintained. Ticks are very poor travelers and need long grass or bushes to climb in order to attach themselves to a person or animal which is passing by. Ticks also need a ready supply of water close by as well. Often when ticks are spotted on a lawn they are there by accident, often from falling from a host.”
According to the New York State Department of Health guide for preventing Lyme disease, along with keeping lawns mowed and edges trimmed, people should:
*Clear brush, leaf litter and tall grass around the house, and at the edges of gardens and stone walls.
*Stack woodpiles neatly away from the house and preferably off the ground.
*In the fall, clear all leaf and garden litter, where ticks can live in the winter, out of your yard.
*Keep the ground under bird feeders clean so as not to attract small animals that can carry ticks into your yard.
*Locate children’s swing sets and other play equipment in sunny, dry areas of the yard, away from the woods, where ticks can be abundant.
In a forum on Permies.com, a website dedicated to permaculture and homesteading, a reader suggests that the best way to control ticks is with guinea fowl, which eat the ticks before they have a chance to bite.
Another way to prevent ticks from entering a property from the woods, says the lawn care website is to create a barrier that the ticks will find very difficult to cross.
Mr. Chinery said he has seen landscape designs for such barriers that use gravel or crushed rock like mulch to create paths or swaths that run between a house and/or lawn and the area where ticks may come from, such as woods.
Claudia Vispo, a biologist with the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program, agrees that ticks like to lurk on taller vegetation, but is still not in favor of cutting the grass. A fan of plant diversity, Ms. Vispo said that lawns are typically places of no diversity because, “not very many plants can stand having their heads chopped off repeatedly.”
The benefits of not cutting the lawn are more philosophical than practical, she said. “By keeping our lawns trimmed we are taking away living spaces for wild things, native plants and animals need space to live as well.” She points to the “pollinators” or the bees many experts are worried about, noting that native bees do a terrific job of pollinating agricultural crops, but they cannot live by agricultural crops alone and need other types of pollen when crops are not in season.
As for that field next to the Ancram Town Hall, Highway Superintendent Jim MacArthur reported Tuesday that a member of his crew mowed it late last week.