In the vast, productive agricultural landscape north of Clair, Sask. lies a quarter-section of land that’s been in the Fowler family since 1918. Now a lush wildlife-friendly mix of wetlands, aspen bluffs and hay, the parcel was recently donated by the family to Ducks Unlimited Canada.
On July 27, 2022 family members and DUC staff gathered at the site to celebrate the donation and the lasting conservation legacy of the Fowler family.
While the dedication ceremony was delayed a few years due to COVID, the land donation took place in 2017. Soon after, DUC got to work restoring the wetland and upland areas to benefit a diverse group of waterfowl and wildlife species.
Nature restores itself on this transformed parcel
In all, DUC restored 26 wetlands totalling one eighth of the project area. Most of the quarter—nearly 130 of its 160 acres (53 of 65 hectares)—had been cultivated, and these areas were seeded to tame forage.
A few years later, the parcel scarcely resembles its former self. Where annual crops once grew, a thick, waist-high crop of grasses and alfalfa now stands, providing habitat for a variety of nesting birds, pollinating insects and other wildlife species. Within the working agricultural landscape of Saskatchewan, this parcel will continue to contribute to the livelihoods of local producers; added to DUC’s management rotation, the land will be available for haying roughly one year in three.
Following a spring and early summer of ample rainfall, the wetlands have resumed former levels of activity. Along the edge of an aspen bluff, young seedlings are advancing from the parent trees, reclaiming their historic homeland. In these areas that were never broken, prairie wildflowers like goldenrod, harebell, and aster are flourishing.
At the dedication ceremony, Brian Fowler spoke on behalf of the family and described their interest in conserving the land.
“We were always a conservation-oriented family with a desire to leave some of the land the way we found it,” Fowler explained.
“Over the years, we’ve had American bitterns in the reeds, great-horned owls nesting in the trees, songbirds like the ones we’re hearing in the bushes today. It was important for our family to donate the land with a view to conserve that broader diversity.”
Over the years, we’ve had American bitterns in the reeds, great-horned owls nesting in the trees, songbirds like the ones we’re hearing in the bushes today. It was important for our family to donate the land with a view to conserve that broader diversity.
A decades-long history and mutual interests bring land donation to fruition
And as it turns out, Fowler—and this quarter-section of land—have a history with DUC that predates these past five years; it goes back several decades to a shared interest in winter wheat.
A world-renowned researcher with the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan, Fowler’s pioneering work in plant genetics and agronomics advanced the widespread adoption of winter wheat across the Canadian Prairies and parts of the U.S. His breeding program released 16 cultivars that would go on to occupy as much as 95 per cent of the winter wheat acreage in western Canada.
But there was one puzzle that proved difficult to solve: how to increase winter wheat’s cold hardiness and winter survival. Fowler identified a possible agronomic solution in no-till farming. By planting the crop into a field’s standing stubble, the stubble traps and holds an insulating layer of snow, protecting winter wheat seedlings from the extremes of a Prairie winter.
Around this time, DUC was researching the benefits of fall-seeded crops to nesting waterfowl. Nest success was higher on acres planted to these crops, due in large part to the resulting shift in the period of field work. Since seeding takes place in the autumn months, there is less farm activity on fields come spring when waterfowl are incubating eggs.
Fowler credits this mutual interest and resulting collaboration with DUC for some measure of his research program’s achievements. “DUC played an active role promoting no-till in fall-seeded crops as nesting habitat. While there wasn’t always understanding in the research community of what we were trying to do with winter wheat, I knew I could count on DUC to keep up the interest.”
As serendipity would have it, the family farm itself would serve as a key site for his winter wheat research. With the help of family members, Fowler was able to undertake field-scale experiments on no-till methods and plant survival—experiments that proved logistically challenging to conduct on university campus.
At the Fowler Project, a newly erected plaque shares this story with visitors to the parcel: the story of how the Fowler family and their land have brought lasting benefit to waterfowl and wildlife, and how—through this act of conservation—they’ll continue to do so long into the future.