Returning land to its original state builds habitat, improves water quality
They say you can’t turn back time.
Yet Wellington County landowner Daryl Hutton has done just that by turning an old pasture on his farm near Harriston back into a wetland.
And in doing so, he is helping improve water quality and increase wildlife habitat in his community.
Wetlands are abundant in the area, which is the headwater for both the Maitland Valley and Saugeen watersheds. An abandoned Grand Trunk Railway rail line runs along the east side of the Hutton farm.
Drainage tiles and culverts to handle water were placed under the rail bed when it was built in the 1800s, but many no longer function properly, causing spring runoff water to back up in the field.
As well, portions of the farm had been tile drained using clay tiles, and here too, some no longer function as they should. This causes spring runoff to pool across flat areas of the field and then slowly drain away.
Nearby farmers who rent Hutton’s land to grow cash crops were reluctant to use the eight-acre field because it was too wet, so he knew he needed to do something.
There were environmental benefits, too, that led him to undertake the conservation project.
“I am a member of Ducks Unlimited Canada and I understand the value of wetlands and the benefits they bring: wildlife habitat, water purification, erosion and flood control,” he explains. “This field held waterfowl in the spring until the water drained away and we enjoy watching the wildlife. And there are other, smaller wetlands on the farm, so this larger wetland will complement those and add to the overall wildlife habitat on the farm.”
Hutton turned to David McLachlin, a biologist with Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC), for help.
McLachlin assisted with the biological site work; the project design, including engaging DUC’s engineering team; obtaining government permits; and lining up and managing the funding from various agencies that was essential to getting the project completed.
Hutton was able to access cost-share funding through the Canada-Ontario Farm Stewardship Program (COFSP), as well as support from the Wellington County Stewardship Council, Maitland Valley Conservation Authority and the Community Fisheries & Wildlife Involvement Program through the Ministry of Natural Resources.
McLachlin says the goal of restoring the wetland is to turn back the site’s ecological clock. Soil samples show it was originally a wetland before the area was settled by farmers in the 19th century.
It was already slowly reverting from old pasture to a wet shrub forest on its own, but with a more permanent water supply now in place, willow shrub and aquatic vegetation like arrowhead, soft stem bulrush, soft rush, broadleaf cattail, and spike rush are expected to flourish.
Water levels will be monitored and slowly increased to ensure the development of a robust and diverse aquatic vegetation community, he says.
“We are, in a way, restoring the site back to what it might have been prior to the clearing of the land over 100 years ago,” says McLachlin. “While no one can be completely sure what that might have looked like, the habitat we are aiming to see develop on site will be a valuable component of the wetland ecology of the area.”
The wetland conversion was completed last summer and Hutton says it is just now filling up with water.
He has already noticed less flooding in his neighbour’s hay field than in previous years, and he expects the wetland to ultimately help improve ground water quality, removing excess nutrients as the water flows through it.
McLachlin agrees this project will have a significant beneficial impact on water quality, and says it’s an excellent example of how wetlands and agriculture can work together.
“Water leaving this site will be of good quality. It’s in a wetland that only discharges during times of abundant water and any water that flows in will flow over intact vegetation so it is automatically cleaner than water flowing over ploughed land,” he explains. “As well, all the water that leaves it flows through an extensive wooded swamp prior to reaching a permanent stream, so there is much opportunity for biological processes to remove any excess nutrients.”
COFSP provided cost-share funding for farmers to implement best management practices that provide environmental benefit on-farm.
Funding is available to farmers who had peer-reviewed Environmental Farm Plans (EFP) in place and had projects approved under the program.
EFP and COFSP were funded under the Best Practices suite of programs of Growing Forward, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative. The programs were administered by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture acting on behalf of the Ontario Farm Environmental Coalition. The Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association delivered the programs to farmers.
Note: this story was originally written for the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association.