Why these farmers are welcoming muskrats, birds, and snakes

Planting trees and wildflowers. Building buffer strips and hedgerows. Creating ponds. Some farms in eastern Ontario are returning land to a more natural state
By Marsha McLeod - Published on Aug 12, 2021
Jake Murray and Rachel Hawkshaw at Topsy Farms, a sheep farm on Amherst Island. (Marsha McLeod)

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Driving an orange vehicle that looks like a cross between a small truck and an ATV, Jake Murray and Rachel Hawkshaw make their way into the grazing fields of Topsy Farms, a sheep farm on Amherst Island, 20 minutes by ferry from Millhaven, near Kingston. Murray, the farm’s co-owner, and Hawkshaw, the site coordinator, are heading toward a portion of the land where they’re working to realize a longstanding dream. 

In the middle of a pasture is a roughy 16-metre by 375-metre fenced corridor, with an opening in the middle that allows sheep to move from one side to the other. Inside the fencing are 500 newly planted trees, as well as native shrubs, a snake habitat, and an intricate watering system. (Without the secure fencing, their sheep would barge in and eat everything they’d planted, Murray says.) Murray’s mother, Sally Bowen, one of the original co-owners of the farm, planted wildflowers throughout to attract pollinators.

Topsy is among a growing number of farms in eastern Ontario that are returning parts of their farmlands to a more natural state — and then maintaining those habitats. To do so, these farmers are planting trees, shrubs, and wildflowers; building buffer strips and hedgerows; and creating ponds and other natural features. The outcome? More habitat is created for birds and pollinators, carbon is sequestered, water is filtered, and soil erosion is prevented, among other benefits. 

two views of grass and plants on a farm
(Left) A hedgerow made of willow and living hawthorn trees; (right) view of Topsy Farms. (Marsha McLeod)

And the possible impact is clear: an international study published last year in Nature found that restoring natural ecosystems on 15 per cent of the globe’s farmland in the “priority areas” it identifies could prevent 60 per cent of expected species extinctions, while also sequestering — that is, capturing and storing — 299 gigatons of carbon dioxide

Topsy staff and a team of physically distanced volunteers created and planted the site over the period of a month in May and June. In total, the corridor, as well as a nearby, newly created hedgerow, add up to more than an acre of new habitat. “A lot of the choices that we made were about what was pre-existing here and also can act as a permaculture food forest,” says Hawkshaw. “The foraging serves us, the flock, but also anything else that’s out and around. It’s a good buffet and shelter for all the birds and the little critters.” 

Generations-old ash trees surround the pasture, but their time is limited, explains Murray, pointing to the scuffing of a nearby trunk as evidence of emerald ash borers, invasive beetles that kill ash trees. Without trees as a wind block, the pasture’s topsoil will blow away, he says. Topsy’s goal is to continue planting trees and to create a one-kilometre-long strip of permaculture forest and hedgerow by 2023. But the project is also about changing minds. “There is a real sense that farmers are bad for the environment, and maybe in some cases that is true, but it doesn’t have to be true,” says Murray. “There are a lot of us who are good environmental stewards.”

While Topsy Farms refers to their projects as “rewilding,” as do some others discussing similar projects, academics tend to define the term as denoting something much larger in scale. Stephen Murphy, a professor at the University of Waterloo who studies rewilding and restoration ecology, says rewilding entails securing enough habitat for large mammals to thrive and generally works on the scale of “multiple watersheds.” (It can include reintroducing predators, an approach that has drawn concern from livestock farmers, including some in the United Kingdom.) But for farmers working on projects such as Topsy’s, Murphy says, “whether one wishes to say, is that rewilding, restoration, or something else … these are individuals who are taking a stance and making a really positive difference.”

red vehicle near grass and trees
Topsy staff and a team of volunteers created and planted the site over the period of a month. (Marsha McLeod)

ALUS refers to such initiatives as “producing ecosystem services,” with carbon sequestration being one of those. The non-profit, which was established in Manitoba as a program called Alternative Land Use Services, now supports projects in six provinces, helps farmers and ranchers plant trees, create pollinator habitats, and build buffer strips to mitigate soil erosion, among other things. “Farmers are productive people, so the notion of putting land aside but it not being productive — it’s not natural to us,” says Bryan Gilvesy, the owner of a cattle ranch in southwestern Ontario and ALUS’s CEO. “The frame ALUS has always put on this is that some of those lands that are marginal or uneconomic to your farming operation can be productive of something else.” 

The organization’s philosophy is that farmers can be an important part of environmental efforts, instead of being excluded from them, says Gilvesy. “The farmers’ conundrum is this: they are farmers for a reason. They’re closely connected to the land and have a keen understanding of the land, but farmers are like everybody else, they have to put their kids through school,” Gilvesy says. “So, our thinking is, if farmers respond to market signals, then we want to send a market signal that looking at the environment has value, too.”

closeup of a sheep's face
Topsy faced a time crunch when finishing the fencing around its permaculture forest, because the farm’s sheep and lambs were grazing toward the newly planted area. (Marsha McLeod)

ALUS participants are compensated at a yearly rate for each acre of land on which they steward ecosystem services. And the model is working. Across Canada, ALUS projects covered almost 31,000 acres, including 2,000 in Ontario, at the end of the last fiscal year. “We are providing the equivalent environmental benefit that a small national park would give. It’s mind-blowing,” Gilvesy says. “It’s one person at a time, one acre at a time, but pretty soon, you’ve got a lot of acres.”

For Marc Bercier, who owns and operates a seed farm, La Ferme Agriber, with his family in St. Isidore, near the Quebec border, the chance to work with ALUS came in 2013 in the form of a gully. He had recently bought his next-door neighbour’s farm and planned to turn it into a new field, but he says that he recalled tobogganing there as a child and picking wild strawberries in June. So, instead, with ALUS’s help, Bercier excavated part of the gully, diked it, and made a pond, creating a wetland habitat. The next year, he planted native trees, shrubs, and flowering plants. The area is about eight acres, and ALUS pays Bercier $150 per acre annually. ALUS also covered the cost of building the pond. 

man standing in front of a pond holding a framed award
Last November, Marc Bercier won ALUS's Dave Reid Award for outstanding land stewardship. (Courtesy of ALUS)

“We can be very quick to destroy nature, but take my pond: a year after it was dug, I could see nature change, and it’s very, very rewarding,” he says. “Two years after that pond was built, we could see muskrats and birds [returning].” 

Even before working with ALUS, Bercier planted buffer strips on his land, using a mix of grasses and shrubs. “The farmland is so expensive. When you have erosion near those ditches and creeks, you lose your farmland. I could lose half an acre per year due to erosion. At $10,000, $15,000 an acre, it’s better to keep that farmland in good shape,” he says, adding that it’s about stewarding the land well so his children and grandchildren can farm it for a long time to come. 

For Topsy, one challenge was assembling the required funding. Murray says it ultimately included three sources: a cost-sharing program for protecting at-risk species from the non-profit Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, supported by Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks; corporate partnerships; and a social-media campaign that asked donors to fund a metre of hedgerow. Topsy worked with the Hedgerow Co. to build an English-style hedgerow at the edge of one pasture. Made of willow branches and living hawthorns, it acts as a wind buffer and provides habitat for small critters and birds. While the farm wound up paying some costs out of pocket, the project would have been $40,000 if it hadn’t received support, Murray says.

“Doing this tree planting doesn’t return us a single dollar, but it increases the biodiversity,” he says. “Humans get in the way a lot of the time, but we don’t have to. We can set things in motion or front-load the effort to let nature do what it does best.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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