Local green initiatives across city show how to work with nature for success
Wildfires. Droughts and record high temperatures. Pollution. Habitat loss. The U.N. reports that a million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction due to human activity.
Every day brings more disheartening news about the environment. So let’s take a mid-summer break and explore five good news environmental stories.
They’re a diverse set— a rain-garden and a tallgrass prairie restoration, a farmer who’s put his chicken coop on wheels, birds used to control birds, and a disc golf course at a conservation area.
What they have in common is they’re all happening here in Kawartha Lakes, and all show local individuals and organizations rolling up their collective sleeves and partnering with nature in innovative ways to solve problems.
Fenelon Falls Rain-Garden
The idea came during a tour the Fenelon Falls Horticulture Society arranged with a Kawartha Conservation technician to identify some worthwhile projects.
Kathy Armstrong, then-president of the society, explains what happened when they reached Maryboro Lodge: “We saw that one area got all the run-off from Oak Street. It was a grassy field and water would rush down there then into the lake without any filtering.”
The recommended solution was a garden to capture stormwater and remove pollutants, a rain-garden.
With funding from Kawartha Conservation and the municipality, Armstrong’s group hired an experienced local contractor (Bob Howe, also responsible for a rain-garden at the Lindsay Armoury’s northeast corner).
Howe excavated a shallow basin, filled it with sandy soil, and topped it with mulch and a winding pathway of river rock to keep soil from washing away, and a few years later returned to expand the garden to its current size.
The Society planted native shrubs, flowers and grasses recommended for rain gardens – hardy, low-maintenance plants well-adapted to the conditions.
The garden serves its intended purposes admirably but is successful in other ways too.
The blossoms, seed-heads and berries of the native plants attract and support bees, butterflies, and birds.
The gardens are attractive for visitors, too. “People think it is stunning,” says Armstrong. “They love to find out it’s also beneficial.”
Worth a visit any time of year, but maybe especially now, suggests Armstrong, “because it holds water, during the summer when other gardens are withering, it is thriving.”
Tallgrass Prairie Restoration in Ballyduff
Situated near the Oak Ridges Moraine and adjacent to the Fleetwood Creek Natural Area, Ballyduff is one of 33 properties Kawartha Land Trust (KLT) actively manages. Its 10 kilometres of recreational trails are open to the public.
Ballyduff’s varied terrain includes upland forest, wetlands, sand barrens, meadows, and now tallgrass prairie.
Unsurprisingly, most of us are unfamiliar with tallgrass prairie. “It is,” KLT Land Stewardship Manager Hayden Wilson points out, “one of the rarest ecosystems in North America and continues to decline.” Less than two per cent of what originally existed in Ontario remains.
The native grasses that make up the prairie differ from grasses we see in parks, meadows, and pastures. They don’t begin growing until late May, their roots reach down several metres in search of water, they grow to two metres or more in height, and produce seed in October.
“They are particularly resilient to some of the potential effects of climate change – droughts, hotter temperatures and increased extreme weather events,” says Wilson. “They are incredibly robust and flexible ecosystems that flourish on parts of our landscape if given the change.
In addition, they support several bird species at risk – grasshopper sparrows, meadowlarks and bobolinks – as well as native insects.
We have the donors of the Ballyduff Trails property, Ralph McKim and Jean Garsonnin, to thank for the restoration.
While walking the property with local naturalists they found several species that showed the area might at one time have been covered in prairie ecosystems.
Work began soon after to start the restoration with help from volunteers and, eventually, Kawartha Land Trust.
It’s been arduous work: the fields were blanketed with dense mats of dog-strangling vine and gnarly scots pine that had to be pulled and dug out.
Six acres of tallgrass prairie has been established; the hope is to double that within five years.
The 283 is Michael Pavan’s farm. Its 200 acres spread out from a hilltop at 283 Providence Road, between Fenelon and Bobcaygeon, and includes pastures for his cattle, pigs, and chickens, a 60-tree mixed orchard planted down a slope, and a wetland area with a stream running through a corner of the property.
Pavan’s core belief is set out on his website: “The farm is an ecosystem, and any thriving system must have diversity and cooperation among its parts.”
The biodiversity is evident everywhere you look. Tree swallow and bluebird boxes are scattered around the orchard, for example, and comfrey serves as a living mulch around the trees.
His management of the chickens exemplifies his practices and their benefits.
The 70 laying hens are out in the pasture, housed in a coop on wheels surrounded by 100 feet of electric fencing. By day they’re outside; at night, they’re locked in the coop, safe from predators. The next morning, the fence and coop are moved to an adjacent space.
The hens feed on a nutritional mix of grains (rolled corn, barley, oats) and the field’s clover, grass and bugs. As they scratch, they’re breaking up thatch, aerating the soil, and bringing seeds to the surface. And, importantly, their manure feeds the grass (without burning, since the coop is moved each day).
In the winter the coop is attached to a large, heavily-mulched greenhouse (on a sled) in which the hens spend their days. As spring arrives, Pavan can plant squash and other heavy feeders in the well-manured spaces the greenhouse has occupied.
The meat birds are kept in a pasture as well, in a low-slung “Salatin-Style Chicken Tractor” enclosure on wheels that is moved three times a day so there’s more grass and bugs in their diet and because they produce more manure.
Because they’re pecking and scratching more aggressively than the laying hens, they do even more aerating of the soil and stir up different seeds.
It’s all healthy for the soil and plants and makes for eggs with rich orange yolks and broilers with yellow skin and flavorful flesh.
A Conservation Area Disc Golf Course
As this issue of the Advocate was going to press Kawartha Conservation was preparing for the July 7th grand opening of a nine-hole disc golf course at its Ken Reid Conservation Area.
If you’re unfamiliar with disc golf, imagine frisbee-like discs thrown from a tee pad to a target, an elevated cylindrical basket strung with metal chains. The sport is easy to learn and can be played by all ages; discs can be borrowed from the Ken Reid Administration office or the Kawartha Lakes Public Library.
Why a disc golf course at a conservation area? “The role of conservation areas is to create opportunities to connect with nature in ways that are meaningful to the community,” explains Kristie Virgoe, director, stewardship and conservation area lands. “Disc golf is a great low-impact activity that attracts people to green spaces across Canada and it’s a great fit with our mandate”.
“Low impact” deserves explanation. Because, as the course designer has pointed out, “Golf is played on the ground; disc golf is played above it” there’s no need for manicured fairways and greens, no need for the watering and fertilizing required in what disc golfers refer to as “ball golf.”
To ensure their course was ultra–low impact, the authority commissioned an environmental impact study. Following its recommendation, no trees on the escarpment slope were removed and instead of poured concrete tee-pads, the designers set a thin artificial turf cover on soil, gravel and limestone screenings.
In completing a nine-hole round, players will experience wetlands, grasslands, escarpment, mixed forest and tree plantations.
If the goal is to immerse visitors in nature, this is a perfect activity: inevitably, as players learn to throw straight or curve shots left or right, they will be exploring the terrain up close as they seek out errant discs.
To further connect visitors to their surroundings each hole is paired with a bird or mammal species found in that habitat.
In addition to info on hole distance (which varies from 200 to 668 feet) and par (3-5) large signs at each tee educate about the animal. Some even make a connection between the animal and hole design.
Where else in Canada are you going to find a hole whose layout mimics the zygodactylic shape of a hairy woodpecker’s foot?
Falconry-based Bird Abatement
Let there be no doubt about Zachary Steele’s love of birds. He’s on the team spearheading efforts to earn Nature Canada’s Bird-Friendly City designation for Kawartha Lakes, and on Fleming College’s Bird Conservation Committee; his company, Kawartha Bird Control (KBC), treats windows to prevent bird collisions, and helps homeowners attract and support native bird species; he also partners with Bird-Friendly Peterborough on bird conservation workshops.
But Steele is keenly aware of the concept of “nuisance birds” – birds such as pigeons, starlings, Canada Geese, ring-billed and herring gulls – that can create headaches for businesses and homeowners.
Steele’s solutions call for an understanding of birds and bird behaviour and a tool-box of strategies that include auditory deterrents, rotating metal devices, removal of eggs, oiling of Canada Geese eggs (to prevent hatching), and pyrotechnics.
His favourite approach though, involves putting his Harris hawk and his gyr-peregrine falcon to work and employing techniques he’s been developing since joining the Ontario Hawking Club as a teenager.
He calls it “falconry-based bird abatement.”
Last summer he was approached by a commercial tenant with a seagull problem.
During the pandemic his building had been lying vacant for three years. Its flat roof was an ideal nesting spot so gulls had claimed the roof-top and laid eggs.
The accumulated acidic droppings were a health hazard. (The rooftop wasn’t ideal for the gulls either, as Steele explains: “When they hatch out birds are flightless; if there’s nothing to keep them on the roof, juveniles fall off and die.”)
By the time Steele did his inspection there were three generations – roughly 600 gulls – colonizing the roof. “They’d won three battles” he says, “and they were trying to win the war,”
Steele’s work began in spring, prior to migration: the goal was to catch gulls as they were arriving and encourage them to nest elsewhere.
Choosing the right bird to employ was important. For, say a landfill site or flocks of starlings he would have employed his gyr peregrine falcon. The falcon (trained with a leather lure swung in a circle to imitate a hunt) casts a silhouette over a large area as it flies its circular pattern.
For this job Steele wanted his Harris hawk. “Nothing shocks or surprises a good Harris hawk,” he says. They socialize well and wouldn’t be distracted by dogs or people. As well, they prefer warmer temperatures.
The hawk was released repeatedly, at different times of day and in different kinds of weather.
So far, the colony has been reduced by two-thirds and the birds haven’t reproduced, all from using birds to control birds.