Farmer saves Ontario snakes

This is the final story in our Earth Day series this week about farmers doing good things for the environment. Thanks for reading!

Dale Vranckx standing in front of the snake habitat he builtThe north shore of Lake Erie is a known habitat for the Eastern Fox Snake, Ontario’s second largest snake species.

It’s protected under the province’s Endangered Species Act, so when Dale Vranckx saw them on his Norfolk County farm, he wanted to do what he could to help bring back the population.

His solution was to build hibernacula – protected areas on his property where the snakes could overwinter safely.

“Our farm is in a wintering area for the fox snake. We have found some on the farm around our pond area so we know they’re here and they’re endangered,” says Vranckx, whose 20 acre sustainable blueberry operation, Blueberry Hill Estate, overlooks the Long Point World Biosphere Reserve. “It’s unique that we have these snakes here and we are doing what we can to rejuvenate the population.”

Vranckx, a member of the Reserve’s board of directors, turned to an expert for help with getting his project started.

Hibernacula are ideally situated in areas with morning sun that are near water but can’t flood.

Vranckx built his alongside the wetland area on his farm, digging five pits and using old tobacco kilns as foundations.

The top is covered with canes pruned from his blueberry bushes and a plastic tube with drilled holes allows the snakes to get in and out as well as go down to the wetland.

Snake hibernacula overlooks wetland and bush
The snake hibernacula overlook wetland and bush at Blueberry Hill Estates

“As we prune we will keep adding canes. We used to burn these but now it’s an ideal way of keeping the hibernacula sustainable,” he says. “You have to maintain it as well, not just build it. Everything on our farm has to rejuvenate itself.”

The farm had its start as Ontario’s first commercial blueberry operation in 1975 and Vranckx and his family, former tobacco farmers, have owned it since 2005.

When they took over, they adopted a fully sustainable model for the property.

This includes growing hay and prairie grass on buffer edges and in riparian areas and establishing a pollinator strip for bees, in addition to the work they are doing with the Fox Snake.

The habitat was built last fall so it’s still too early to see any measurable results in the local snake population, but Vranckx is optimistic the project will be a success.

An open access pipe for the snakes to access the habitat.
An open access pipe for the snakes to access the habitat.
This access pipe for the snakes is hidden from view.
This access pipe for the snakes is hidden from view.

He will begin monitoring activities this year.

“It’s still early days, but we believe that if you build it, they will come,” he says, adding since adopting the sustainable model, he now has a natural bee population on his farm and no longer needs bees brought in for pollination. “Nature has a way of coming back if you provide for it. If you provide the proper conditions, it will rejuvenate.”

He is planning to add an agri-tourism component to his blueberry operations so that he can help educate visitors to his farm about sustainable production, hibernacula and what people can do to save species at risk.

Vranckx was able to access cost-share funding for his hibernacula project through the Species at Risk Farm Incentive Program (SARFIP), administered by the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA).

“This is something we wanted to do, but the SARFIP funding played an important role in our decision to go ahead with this project,” says Vranckx.

Note: A longer version of this story was originally written for and released by the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association.

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