Located between Woodstock and Beachville, the 285-acre (115-hectare) Thames River project has undergone significant changes over the last few years.
The former agricultural land had been unmanaged and generally unused for almost 30 years, until 2012. That’s when a partnership between Stewardship Oxford and the County of Oxford, set the wheels in motion for change. Joining forces with Upper Thames River Conservation Authority, Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC), the collaboration led to the restoration of some wetlands on the property to create quality habitat for waterfowl, songbirds and other wetland-dependent wildlife.
This was the first step in a multi-year enhancement project. Since then, partners, students and a host of volunteers have helped plant thousands of trees, restore Monarch butterfly and bee habitats and create snake and turtle nesting sites.
“This property is like a piece of art,” says Howard Holst, tour attendee, avid hiker and local resident. “Like a canvas is built by layering, so is this landscape. You start with the foundation, then you add the water, then the birds come and now the trees. Each time my wife and I come here, we see the change. Right now everything is at our kneecaps, but one day, there will be shade overhead and it will simply be a great place to visit and catch nature at its best.”
For Mitch Ellah, the tour was a reminder of time he’s devoted to enhancing the property for wildlife – a way to give back to the area where he grew up. Now a biologist for a consulting firm in nearby Guelph, Ellah volunteered his time at the Thames River Wetland to create the turtle nesting sites and snake hibernacula, underground chambers filled with sticks and debris where snakes can safely nest and winter.
“I was excited about the opportunity to help create natural habitat for wildlife at the property,” says Ellah. “I learned a lot and felt really good about doing it. I’ve always wanted to do these kinds of things, and now that I can, I find it very rewarding.”
Like many other environmentally-minded individuals who participated in the tour, Ellah looks forward to continuing his support of the project and further enhancing the natural features of the landscape into the future.
A perfect example is the property’s tree-planting project. Hundreds of Oxford County students, ranging from Grades One to 12, have been engaged in the planting of more than 1,800 native trees and shrubs on site. According to Brad Hertner, community partnership specialist with the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority, this tree planting project was a valuable lesson in environmental issues in their community.
“Not only do the students get a lesson in why we choose native trees and plants, but they have the opportunity to learn about wetland habitat and functions, the river, floodplain and the wildlife corridor,” explains Hertner. “We want to get youth connected to the river and nature in a real emotional way. When students get out working beside the river, on projects that are helping improve the overall river corridor, we see them making decisions to protect these natural spaces their whole life.”
For Jim Ekins, meanwhile, looking after the land is closely tied to his passion for outdoor pursuits.
“I’ve always been interested in the outdoors,” says Ekins, a local resident and a member of Stewardship Oxford. “From outdoor sporting clubs to fishing and hunting, to getting involved in stream rehab. It seems to be a tightening circle, the more you know, the more you want to get involved.”
Others, like Doug Ross, another member of Stewardship Oxford, have a personal, sentimental attachment to the Thames River. “I used to take my son fishing further upstream when he was just a kid,” says Ross. “My grandson has been out a few times and now that the next generation is coming along, we’ll see if they end up with fishing poles in their hands one day too.”
Many see Phil Holst as the driving force behind this project. Holst, the vice-chair of Stewardship Oxford and longtime DUC volunteer has been called “the local champion for wetlands.” His passion for the Thames River Wetland project in particular, is both inspiring and infectious.
For Holst, seeing a landscape with great potential finally take shape, “has been a gratifying experience.”
“I was excited to take a leadership position on this remarkable project,” Holst explains, “but it’s not one I took lightly. I know that you can’t do a project of this magnitude on your own. It wouldn’t have happened without all the partners who took an interest, and brought their best efforts forward.”
The Thames River Wetland restoration project doesn’t end here though. Holst and others have already started making plans to restore more wetlands and create upland habitat that is more conducive to other species, like meadow lark and bobolink. The Oxford County Trails Council is also currently expanding their trail system from Innerkip to Ingersoll, including an extension of the Oxford Thames River Trail, near Beachville. While the Thames River Wetland Project is not open to the public, the expansion will end at a new observation platform overlooking the property, ensuring all who pass by have the opportunity to take in the scenery and experience the serenity of this model landscape for themselves.