Cobourg man ensures future of fragile ecosystem with land donation to NCC

Photo by Chelsea Marcantonio/NCC

The Hazel Bird Nature Reserve is expanding its hectarage thanks to a land donation made by a nature-loving southern Ontario man to the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC). The donation expands the reserve by one-third, or by 40 hectares, to more than 150 hectares.

In 1996, when John O’Neill and his late partner Colin Jones purchased their property, they did not understand its ecosystem, O’Neill says. 

“We knew next to nothing about tallgrass prairie or oak savannahs.”

It was only after talking with local and provincial naturalists, including Hazel Bird herself, that the pair began to appreciate the rare and special ecosystem on their land in southern Ontario. Hazel Bird was a Canadian naturalist known for her work in restoring the bluebird population of Northumberland County.

“We observed firsthand how this rare ecosystem was threatened by expanding resource development and creeping urban sprawl, and by invasive non-native plant species,” O’Neill explained.

Rare tallgrass prairies are the result of wildfires, ensuing nutrient-rich soils and large mammals grazing, and the ecosystem is characterized by wildflowers and two-metre-tall, grass-like bluestem and switchgrass. An oak savannah is an open-canopy ecosystem, featuring fire-resistant oak trees.

“We agreed that we should somehow find a way to preserve it and protect it from development.” In 2011, when the NCC created the Hazel Bird Nature Reserve just south of  Jones and O’Neill’s land, the idea of gifting the land to the conservation group came to them.

The Rice Lake Plains, where Hazel Bird Nature Reserve is nestled, covers more than 40,000 hectares of land, stretching from the eastern end of Oak Ridges Moraine and southeast of Peterborough.

Loss of this cornerstone habitat means biodiversity loss impacting already-threatened species like the monarch butterfly, the red-headed woodpecker, the Karner Blue and the milkshake

“After Colin’s death in 2013, the issue of what to do with the land became more urgent for me,” O’Neill says.  The degree of degradation from invasive species became more pressing, particularly when he compared his land to that of the Hazel Bird reserve.

“The defining moment for me,” O’Neill says, “was the day I walked to the highest point on the land, and my panoramic view of Rice Lake was completely blocked by [invasive] Scots pine.” 

Man stands on top of cut Scots pine trees
NCC Ontario Board Chair Paul Genest stands next to a pile of non-native Scots pine trees that were removed from a property donated to NCC. Photo by Chelsea Marcantonio/NCC.

Historically, the Rice Lake Plains are home to tallgrass prairies and oak savannah, dominated by massive black and white oak. 

Today, the oak savannah and tallgrass prairie of the Rice Lake Plains are badly fragmented and overgrown with non-native species, like Scots pine, the European Buckthorn and Giant Hogweed.

“Donating the land to the NCC during my lifetime seemed a logical solution,” says O’Neill. The contribution would allow the NCC to begin rehabilitation sooner, rather than later, letting O’Neill watch the ecosystem’s restoration unfold before his eyes.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada aims to accelerate conservation initiatives across the country, developing solutions to both biodiversity loss and climate change.

“I am very pleased that the NCC will be managing this land and bringing it back to something like it was before the settlement of southern Ontario,” O’Neill said.  

With the NCC’s permanent and large-scale conservation efforts, the gifted land will always serve as a reminder of Colin Jones’ and John O’Neill’s long-lasting love of nature.

“The land will be protected forever from development and the native plants and animals will thrive on it.”

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