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Waterfowl and Wetlands of Long Point Bay and Old Norfolk County

Land-use in Norfolk County:

While inland ecosystems differ substantially from coastal ecosystems, they may indirectly or directly be just as critical for wildlife. Old Norfolk County is 3,150 kmē and lies on a sand plain deposited during glacial runoff 9,000 years ago. These sands, with their characteristically efficient drainage, have had a direct influence on historical and present-day land use throughout the region. The moderate climate provides excellent opportunities for growing agricultural crops, and the area has an abundance of wildlife and plant species.

Norfolk was almost completely covered by the Carolinian Forest when settlers first arrived in the 1600s. Consequently, lumbering became the chief industry. The eventual lack of trees available for logging during the late 1800s, and the ready availability of cleared land, productive soils and favorable climate resulted in mixed agriculture replacing lumbering as the primary industry. By the early 1900s, overzealous logging and intensive agricultural practices had resulted in extensive loss of vegetative cover and excessive soil erosion. Quite fortunately, the Province of Ontario's Department of Lands and Forests opened Ontario's first forestry station on the 100-acre Waterbury farm near St. Williams in 1908. This marked a significant turning point for old Norfolk County, as denuded areas were reforested and the trend towards unsustainable land use activities was reversed. Today, old Norfolk County boasts a higher percentage of forest than most other counties within Carolinian Canada.

With the discovery that tobacco could be grown very successfully on sandy soils, the first crop was planted in 1920. Whereas the reforestation of old Norfolk increased the ecological integrity of the area, the introduction of tobacco as a crop increased the economic viability of local agriculture. High profit margins were immediately realized, resulting in tobacco very quickly becoming the dominant agricultural crop throughout the area over the next fifty years.

Fortunately, tobacco farming is much less ecologically intrusive than cereal grain production. Because tobacco plants are susceptible to direct wind damage as well as the sand blasting effect of wind erosion, extensive wind breaks are usually planted. Also, tobacco is generally planted every second year on a crop rotation with rye or winter wheat. The latter are seeded each fall following tobacco harvest, thereby providing a cover crop in-between tobacco crops. A major benefit of this farming system is that it substantially reduces wind and water erosion.

The Ontario Tobacco Industry suffered difficult times in the 1980s, resulting in a substantial decline in old Norfolk Counties tobacco production. While tobacco remains the major cash crop within the former county, it is slowly being replaced by cereal crops, especially corn. For instance, there was an 18% increase in small grain production between 1971 and 1986, and acreage of corn in the region has increased seven fold since 1950.

While total farmland in the area declined from 87 to 74% of the region's land area between 1951 and 1986, conversion from tobacco to cereal grains tends to promote the conversion of marginal lands and wetlands to crop production. Also, cereal grains are most efficiently produced with large equipment, the high costs of which further promote the conversion of natural areas to cultivation in order to maximize return on investments. Consequently, increased cereal grain cultivation has in all likelihood decreased the amount of nesting habitat available to waterfowl and other ground nesting birds. It also has the potential to increase soil erosion since corn does not require a cover crop. However, the susceptibility of old Norfolk's sandy soils to wind erosion and the fact that these soils provide good spring drainage, thereby enabling farmers to plow fields in the spring, has limited the amount of fall plowing done by cereal grain farmers. This and the fact that several conservation organizations have been advocating minimum till, while opposing fall plowing, has resulted in very few fields within the county being plowed in the fall.

Whereas tobacco production has been important for soil conservation in old Norfolk County, tobacco plants have virtually no nutritional value for wildlife. In direct contrast, waste corn left in fields following harvest has become one of the most important wildlife foods in North America, and this is particularly true for waterfowl. Consequently, the increase in corn and concurrent decrease in tobacco in old Norfolk County has probably had a substantial nutritional benefit to the dabbling ducks, geese and swans that stage on Long Point Bay and throughout old Norfolk County.

Relative to most other southern Ontario counties, old Norfolk County is an ecological success story with respect to the conservation of native habitats. We must continue to conserve and enhance these essential habitats for future generations as well as for wildlife. Land use problems need to be addressed in a cooperative and well informed manner at the landscape level. Maximum impact will be realized by co-ordinating the efforts of a wide range of individuals and agencies that have a vested interest in sustainable agriculture and wildlife conservation.

There are two very important fundamentals of upland habitat management that need to be addressed in old Norfolk County. The first is the management and conservation of upland habitats throughout the county to provide suitable habitats for wildlife, especially birds, and to reduce the impact of intensive agriculture on the ecological functioning of small inland wetlands. The second important issue is the influence of intensive agriculture on the ecology of Long Point Bay, through sedimentation and non-point sources of contaminants and nutrients. There are several management actions that can be implemented through numerous agencies including the Eastern Habitat Joint Venture, the Long Point Region Conservation Authority, the Norfolk Land Stewardship Council, and the Community Wildlife Involvement Program. Some of the management actions that would be most beneficial on the old Norfolk sand plain would be the further promotion of conservation tillage, buffer strips, permanent cover plots, planting and maintenance of windbreaks, and education.

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