It was when Doug and Jane Richards saw the Great Horned Owl nesting on their property, and followed the progress of her owlets as they became ‘limbers’, jumping from branch to branch, that they recognized their once exhausted farm property was becoming a sanctuary.
“That was our biggest find,” remembers Doug as he shows a slide show of all the conservation-based projects he and Jane have undertaken in the past 27 years since buying their lowland property outside of Ailsa Craig.
But winning the Conservationist of the Year award from the Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority (ABCA) was pretty good too!
“It’s been a lifetime journey,” explains Jane, whose career has focused on conservation from her early days with the Upper Thames Conservation Authority, to working as a Soil Conservation Officer with OMAF to her present day position as Principal of Cordner Science, an agriculture, environment and sustainability consulting firm. “This award has helped us stop and reflect on what’s been done...and we realized the hard work has been worth it.”
Hard work indeed. When they bought the property, it looked tired and desolate. Overgrazing, lack of understanding about soil conditions and improperly managed water systems had ravaged the soil structure and wildlife habitat.
However, it had character and potential and offered the Richards family a chance to live near their places of work, but still in the country. Also, it had a balance between cropland and conservation land and included a stretch of the Little Ausable river.
They named their 100 acres Cordner Farms.
“We wanted the farm to be productive but also managed properly, including the river, the woodlot and the fragile lands,” says Doug. “Instead of fixing the house up, we fixed the farm up.” (They fixed the house up later.)
One of the first things Doug and Jane did was complete an environmental farm plan and repair a municipal drain that ended abruptly, having no proper outlet. The drain had become unnecessarily wide and had been further damaged by cattle traffic. The couple improved water management by engaging the neighbourhood and spearheading a request for municipal drain work resulting in a proper outlet, sediment trap and tile repair.
The drain is now a narrow passageway with groundcover on each side.
Other projects they’ve done include:
• Protecting fragile land (muck soil and steep slopes) by fencing cattle out of watercourses and planting trees. Later, they chose to sell the herd and focus on crops and conservation.
• Improving water quality and river flow by stabilizing the riverbank and rehabilitating a rock chute within a river bed.
• Maintaining a no-hunting and a catch and release fishing policy
•Supporting a share-crop agreement with a local farmer that includes minimum and no-till conservation crop production.
• Improving and maintaining two grassed waterways on a municipal drain.
• Planting a wildlife corridor so all natural areas on the farm are connected.
And perhaps the most fulfilling project has been the Tallgrass Prairie, which now abounds with grasses, flowers, bees and wildlife on what was once depleted and unimproved pasture.
“I had to cut it twice a year with the mower and it got to be a pain so I consulted with ABCA about planting trees and they suggested they wouldn’t do well,” remembers Doug. “The land was gravelly and surrounded by a woodlot with standing water.”
The ABCA suggested a Tallgrass Prairie which, once established, will maintain itself. Establishing it, however, was quite a process, taking three years of labour and weed suppression.
“The thing is, you only have one chance to plant it right to make sure the weeds don’t take over,” explains Doug.
First Doug and his sons spent several days in the summer of 2009 clearing brush and cutting out hawthorn trees. In the fall, the areas were sprayed with a grass/broadleaf mix to kill weeds. The following spring, in 2010, professionals came in for a controlled burn to further kill weeds. When it greened up again, there was another application of RoundUp. By the end of June, the land was planted with Roundup Ready soybeans which served as yet another weed suppressant. These were left to feed the wildlife over winter and the following spring, the areas were sprayed for the third and final time in 2011.
After three years of preparation, it was time to plant.
The first week of June, a no-till drill was rented to plant 28 different species of native grasses and forbes (as the wildflowers are called). Included in the mixture are the recognizable names of yarrow, aster, coreopsis, goldenrod, vervain, false sunflower, black-eyed susans, bluestem and switchgrass.
Usually a Tallgrass Prairie takes three years to put on a show but Doug said they were lucky with rainfall and growing conditions and the first year (2011), the field was awash with colour.
Doug said it was like a living thing, abuzz with insects and birds gorging on seeds.
These birds have spread the colour around the farm. “We see some of those flowers on the riverbank and under some trees, it looks like someone planted a perfect circle of black-eyed susans. But it’s the birds creating them as they sit on the branches.”
The Tallgrass Prairie is now firmly entrenched. It may need a controlled burn in a few years to control the grasses, which tend to take over. Also, the heat of the burn is what causes some of the 21 wildflower species to germinate. For now, they are patiently dormant.
Doug doesn’t deny that the Tallgrass Prairie and projects like the wildlife corridor have been a lot of work. The creation of the corridor was also done in partnership with ABCA and involved planting 30 spruce, oak, maple and pine trees.
“It was definitely a labour of love,” recalls Doug, remembering how they watered the trees once a week for most of the summer, using a fertilizer tote and buckets.
Watering is the key to survival, he explains, and lack of water (along with tree theft) is one of the reasons a similar project they tried on their farm years earlier failed.
Maintenance is also a factor in the success of their projects and Doug admits he and the family spent most weekends working on the farm as the children grew up. But nobody seemed to mind.
At the time of this article, Doug had a few weeks left of work as a Swine specialist with OMAFRA. When people ask him what he’ll do with his free time he has a ready answer: “What I used to have to fit into a weekend I can now do all week.”
It’s not a sacrifice. He says it’s a pleasure to maintain the property which has become a sanctuary. His rewards? Trout spawning in the river, bass making nests near the bank, salmon in the fall, snappers hiding in the shallows, frogs in full-throated song, pintail ducks, killdeer, bald eagles, indigo buntings and red tail hawks swooping in for the kill; walking sticks, cicadas and snakes.
An osprey likes to perch on the dead hickory trees on the Richardses’ property and there is excitement in Doug’s voice when he talks about this year’s project....building a nest box for the osprey and attaching a webcam to watch the progress of her nestlings.
If others are inspired to take a conservation approach to their farms, Doug recommends hooking up with their local conservation authority.
“They have a wealth of knowledge and information,” he says. It’s also a good place to learn about grants and other financial supports.
The projects don’t have to be big to make a huge difference either. “The Tallgrass Prairie is the biggest project we did. The rest were little projects with maximum wildlife benefits.” ◊