ELMIRA — When the snow melts this spring, visitors can explore some of southern Ontario’s original habitats, right here.
The Habitats project is a six-acre educational site, in which an unused field off Union Street is being converted into a showcase of five of Ontario’s original, largely lost habitats.
The space is owned by Woolwich Township. It is too small for profitable farming and unsuitable for development because it is located on floodplain. So, Trees for Woolwich, a long-running tree-planting volunteer group, is creating a solution for the space.
Trees for Woolwich aims to double the township’s tree cover to help make up for the trees lost to agriculture and development or disease and pests. The Habitats project is intended to help with this goal.
“Part of the reality is that we’ve lost a lot of trees,” said Inga Rinne, a core volunteer with the group.
The project’s featured habitats include oak savanna, tallgrass prairie, maple beech and yellow-birch forest, early successional forest, and wetland.
This past fall the group planted the tallgrass prairie feature after spending two years controlling weeds on the property. Tallgrass prairie is one of the rarest kinds of habitat in Ontario, said Rinne. It is vulnerable to invasive species and needs regular prescribed burns for about 10 years before it can maintain itself.
This year, the group will plant 400 trees to create the oak savanna and the maple, beech and yellow birch forest.
After that will come the early successional forest and wetlands on the lower-lying parts of the property.
“The six acres, they range in characteristics,” said Mark Schwarz, another core volunteer with the group who designed the project. “It’s got high dry ground and low swampy ground.”
Schwarz is the president of Earthscapes, a landscaping company based in Woolwich. He said Trees for Woolwich is not typically involved with designing habitats. The Grand River Conservation Authority and Tallgrass Ontario provided technical support to the group.
“It was like a crash course in basic environmental science and understanding plant communities and forest types and then deciding which ones fit the property that we had,” he said.
The project will include a total of 1,200 trees and some landscaping to revert the property from flat agricultural field to something closer to its probable topography before settlement, said Schwarz.
This will involve recreating a pit and mound landscape in the lower parts of the property. A pit and mound landscape is naturally created when large trees fall over. Whey they fall, they rip up the soil and make dips that become seasonal ponds filled with water in the spring and sit low in the summer. Schwarz said this is ideal habitat for amphibians and reptiles.
Throughout the site’s five habitats, the group also plans to include three of Ontario’s rarest tree species: elm, American chestnut, and butternut.
Dutch elm disease has systematically wiped out elm trees across North America since the 1930s, but disease-resistant species have been bred, said Schwarz. From this stock, the Habitats project will source their elms.
Butternuts are subject to butternut canker, a disease that does not have a cure and in some places has wiped out 90 per cent of the butternut population. Trees for Woolwich will plant butternut, hoping to help increase stock until a cure is found.
American chestnuts are endangered in Canada because of a chestnut blight introduced to North America in the early 1900s. It has effectively wiped out this once prolific tree.
A disease-resistant strain has been developed with genetically modified organism technology, said Schwarz.
Trees for Woolwich plans to plant American chestnut trees that will function as placeholders until the disease-resistant version is approved for use. Then the disease-resistant trees will be planted and crossbred. Half of the future offspring will be disease resistant, said Schwarz.
“It’s a long-term solution.”
Rinne expects the whole Habitats project to cost approximately $70,000. So far private donations amount to $28,000, she said. Lanxess, a chemical manufacturing company in Elmira, committed to donating $8,500.
The group will rely on volunteers to plant and maintain the trees, and weed the tallgrass prairie landscape.
The plan includes walkways and educational signs throughout so visitors can personally experience the five habitats.
“We’d like people to see that there are pockets of land around cities and towns that can be turned back to fully functioning ecosystems,” said Schwarz.
“Throughout Elmira there’s a few of these places that don’t have to just sit as empty gravel parking lots with weeds in them,” he said. “They can be beautiful, recreational, educational places- and habitat.”
Leah Gerber’s reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. The funding allows her to report on stories about the Grand River Watershed. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Leah Gerber, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Waterloo Region Record