Category Archives: Reflections of a Naturalist

Wildlife of Pelham: The Truth About Foxes

The other day a friend and I were hiking through the forests of Short Hills, up and down steep ravines, until we stumbled upon a foxhole dug into the side of a steep hill.

Around the outside of the foxhole were tracks leading off through the forest, and a few scattered animal bones from the fox’s meals.

Foxes are charming and remarkably beautiful creatures that loom large in popular mythology.

The common expression, “sly as a fox” accurately conveys the cunning intelligence of these animals.

The ancient Greek writer Aesop featured the fox in many of his famous fables.
Another ancient Greek writer, Plutarch, told the story of the Spartans’ legendary ability to endure pain by an allegory involving a fox.

Spartan youths, as part of their intense training, were not provided with food. They had to steal, scrounge, or otherwise find what sustenance they could. According to Plutarch, one Spartan youth caught himself a fox, concealed the creature in his tunic, and made off with it.

However, the fierce and ferocious fox had other ideas: it gnawed through its captor’s flesh and internal organs, while the youth, holding to Sparta’s legendary standards, refused to cry out in pain and thus died honourably.

A diametrically opposite image of the fox is conveyed in Walt Disney’s 1981 classic The Fox and the Hound, which make its audience fall in love with a cute fox pup named Todd.

The truth about foxes lies somewhere in between these two extremes. They are much too small a creature, indeed hardly larger than a house cat, to be an animal worth fearing.

On the other hand, foxes are not quite so cute and cuddly as Disney depicts: they are primarily a carnivorous animal, and prey upon mice and other rodents, and sometimes even rabbits. The remainder of their diet typically consists of bird eggs, insects, fruit and carrion.

Fox hunting was the sport of the English aristocracy for centuries; only very recently did the British government ban this rather unsporting practice. (The foxes were traditionally chased by packs of hound dogs and hunters mounted on horseback.)

There are two different types of fox found in southern Ontario. The red fox, by far the most common and what you are most likely to see wandering the local fields and forests, and the rarer gray fox.

The elusive gray fox is the only member of the dog family to climb trees. In Ontario, it is found almost exclusively along the shorelines of Lake Ontario and Erie.

The red fox is abundant though, and has long been prized for its beautiful fur.

One of my most regrettable encounters with a fox came a few winters ago when I was walking my 120-pound mixed breed dog Riley through the local woods. As we happened upon a foxhole, its occupant all of a sudden leapt out and dashed off. Riley wildly chased after the fox, while I, not wanting unnecessary bloodshed, pursued both the dog and the fox as fast as I could.

Our mad dash ended on a frozen swamp, where the fox slipped on the ice, allowing Riley to catch it. I regret to say that he broke the poor animal’s neck and left me the uneviable task of ending the creature’s suffering.

Fortunately, on this day in Short Hills, the fox remained in its hole, and I am glad to say we went on our way not having disturbed it.

Environmental Stewardship: Niagara’s Missing 4th Pillar

Recently Pelham’s Niagara Regional Councillor, Brian Baty, laid out on the pages of our local newspapers in his own words, “some of the ways in which Niagara demonstrates environmental stewardship.”

Accordingly, I think it is only fair to provide an account of some of the ways in which Niagara demonstrates an emphatic lack of environmental stewardship.

To begin with, contrary to what Councillor Baty seems to think, the recent construction of a large, so-called “Conservation Centre” at Ball’s Falls Conservation Area is not a truimph of sound environmental stewardship.

Rather, it represents an astonishing disregard for the ecological and historical integrity of this unique site.

UNESCO designated the Niagara Escarpment a World Biosphere Reserve in 1990; putting it in the company of such natural wonders as the Galapagos Islands, the Florida Everglades, and Africa’s Serengeti.

But here in Niagara, that doesn’t prevent a “Conservation” Authority from constructing a 12,000 sqaure-foot toursit complex directly on the Escarpment.

To call a spade a spade, the construction of a 12,000 square-foot, 3.2 million dollar complex on a heritage and conservation site situated within a World Biosphere Reserve is a disgrace.

Claims that the new building has been constructed under stringent environmental guidelines are absolutely irrelevant: the point is, any large-scale construction on a conservation site is not an improvement.

Moreover, the expenditure of millions on this building that could and should have been used for actual conservation projects (such as the acquisition of more conservation sites) constitutes unacceptable mismangement.

Meanwhile, the disfigurement of the countryside and disappearance of Niagara’s forests through a lack of genuine smart growth strategies remains unchecked.

Urban sprawl in the peninsula has raised the spectre that rural Wainfleet will become the “next Binbrook.”

Despite widespread opposition from local residents in Wainfleet to the construction of a municipal water and sewage pipeline, (which in turn would lead to housing subdivisions), both the municipal and regional councils are apparently blind to the wishes of their constituents and the health of natural environments.

The further urbanization of Niagara will steamroll ahead if the proposed Niagara-to-GTA transportation corridor (i.e. the proposed new mega-highway), is built across the rural south of Niagara.

Of course, one could question the economic wisdom of constructing any new mega highways in an era of skyrocketing gas prices, but that would be expecting too much from our chronically myopic politicians.

If the Region is actually serious about strong environmental stewardship, it would seem reasonable for the council to come out against this proposed highway and make that clear to the provincial government.

Instead, they continue to lobby for its construction.

This is only a very brief overview of Niagara’s shortcomings in environmental stewardship; a more exhaustive examination could fill endless pages. But I’ll save the trees and end things here.

In short, while Niagara may compare favourably to some other jurisdictions, if I were to issue the Region of Niagara a report card on environmental stewardship, I think an F is what it deserves.

Predator Re-introduction a Solution to Deer Overpopulation

Recently while I was driving along the winding roads and rolling hills of St.Johns I observed a herd of white-tail deer nonchalantly walk across the front lawn of someone’s house.

Two small fawns followed their mother, while the other deer, including a buck, seemed not in the least concerned by their proximity to human habitation.

Seeing deer in Pelham is of course by no means an uncommon occurence. In fact, chances are you are more likely to encounter deer today than 30, 50, or even 100 years ago.

This is owing to an explosion in the deer population of southern Ontario over the last several decades or so.

The underlying factors that have produced this dramatic increase in deer numbers are relatively straightforward.

The deer’s two major natural predators besides humans, wolves and cougars, have been largely extirpated from southern Ontario.

Other, less significant factors, such as an increase in farmland, may also have played a role in the deer’s population expansion.

However, the central factor is clear: the natural food chain has been disrupted.
Gray wolves and red wolves, historically native to southern Ontario, have long since been killed off.

The same was true of the eastern cougar, which as early as 1908 was listed as extirpated from the province.

Rampant hunting of these formidable predators, coupled with a destruction of their habitat, resulted in their populations declining to the point where both red wolves and eastern cougars reached the brink of extinction.

And with the deer’s major predators removed from the equation, nature’s checks on the deer population are absent. Thus, we have witnessed the skyrocketing of deer populations.

While cougars have started to re-establish themselves in the province, including Niagara, their numbers are nowhere near on par with historic levels, and they remain elusive and endangered. (See http://adamshoalts.com/cougars-resurgence-a-natural-success-story/).

Wolves are even worse off; virtually none are to be found in southern Ontario today, and the red wolf remains on the verge of extinction.

The most commonly proposed solution to the deer problem (overpopulation of deer can result in the destructions of farmers’ crops) is simply to increase the annual sport-hunting quota.

Other suggestions sometimes made in this neck of the woods is to permit hunting in Short Hills Provincial Park. That, however, would be an unwise and unsafe solution because of the likelihood of a hunting accident.

Slaughtering deer en masse is understandably not a popular proposal, nor an ideal one.
Ideally, in order to restore balance to the currently disrupted ecosystem, a reintroduction of predator speices that were formally killed off is required. This would repair the broken food chain.

When the requisite habitat exists, wolves can be successfully reintroduced to areas that they were extirpated from. This was proven with the successful re-introduction program of gray wolves from Alberta to Yellowstone National Park in the United States in the 1990s.
As well, wolves can in fact survive in areas that are heavily populated and lack major wilderness.

This is confirmed by the case of Iberian gray wolves and their adaption to urban development in their range. (See Blanco, Juan Carlos, et. al. “Wolf Response to two kinds of Barriers in Agricultural Habitat in Spain.” Canadian Journal of Zoology 83 (2005): 312-323.)

If humans lend a hand by not wantonly destroying natural habitat (i.e. through smart growth strategies, which also make much economical sense) and implement reforestation projects, (which Dalton McGuinty claims to be interested in) then it is not inconceivable that wolf and cougar populations could return to healthy levels across Ontario.

There is no need to fear wolf or cougar attacks on humans; despite folklore and popular perceptions, such attacks are exceedingly rare.

People would do well to remember that this earth belongs to animals as much as humans, and I for one truly believe that we should make amends for past transgressions.

However, I regret to say that barring a miracle, readers can rest assured that no politician with enough gusto and foresight is likely to emerge on the political landscape to carry through such an initiative any time soon.

A Short Walk in Bradshaw Park

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep,”

These famous lines from Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” drifted into my mind as I trudged through deep snow on the outskirts of a Fenwick forest.

It was a deathly cold night; the air was crisp, the stars partially hidden by clouds. Walking the silent snow-covered woods of Pelham is a pastime of mine, particularly at night.

Although our town has been radically altered by urban sprawl and subdivision housing projects over the last decade, fortunately enough of rural Pelham survives to make walking in forests still possible.

Pelham enjoys several nature parks: the large expanse of Short Hills Provincial Park in North Pelham, nearby St. John’s Conservation Area, and in Fenwick, Bradshaw Park.

As of late I had devoted quite a lot of time to walking the woods of North Pelham on nocturnal excursions searching for the eastern cougar. After completing that quest, I thought a change in venue was in order: so I turned my attention to Pelham’s nature park, Bradshaw.

This fifty-acre property is located on Chandler road amongst the fields and woodlots of rural Fenwick. It was bequeathed to the town by Harold S. Bradshaw, who passed away in 1982 and stipulated in his will that his property was to be made into a park.

In the late 1990s an ill-advised plot to transform Bradshaw Park to a recreational park complete with soccer and baseball fields was mercifully averted. Local residents deserve the credit for saving Bradshaw; they successfully lobbied the municipal council to preserve it.

The park is an excellent place to take a casual stroll or especially to walk a canine friend. Well-groomed trails loop through the mostly wooded expanse, and it is less well travelled than Short Hills Provincial Park, although admittedly not nearly as large or picturesque.

The forest of Bradshaw is not composed of stately trees, such as one will in Marcy’s Woods in Fort Erie, but is rather scrubby, thick and tangled. Although on the southern border of the park grows an ancient and towering red oak.

However, the predominately scrubby habitat is ideal for many species of wildlife, including whitetail deer, coyotes, red foxes, rabbits, grey squirrels, and upland game birds. The park is also most likely home to some wild turkeys.

As I wandered through the park, I noted plenty of deer and rabbit tracks, and in a patch of thick brush I spotted an eastern cottontail as it darted away from me.

Toward the back of the park the trees become somewhat larger. In the fading light of dusk I ventured into a thick grove of ominous-looking overgrown fruit trees.

A slight breeze caused the aged trees to creak eerily; tangled vines as thick as a man’s forearm hang from their ghostly branches. The whole scene had a decidedly sinister appearance to it; I found it rather reminiscent of an Edgar Allen Poe horror story.

If only a coyote had howled it would have perfectly complimented the atmosphere.
Tree species found within the park are mainly deciduous, although there are also some pine, both red and white, and on the eastern periphery of the park is a decent-sized eastern white cedar.

A small tributary of Coyle Creek snakes through the park and drains a small pond. The meandering creek had yet to freeze, and with all the recent heavy snowfall it was brimming with fast-flowing water.

Overall, Bradshaw Park is an interesting place, and well-worth braving the cold and deep snows to take a walk in.

O’Reilly’s Bridge Should Stay Put

When I find myself lacking adequate time to undertake a northern canoe trip in the wilderness of the Canadian Shield, I turn my attention to local waterways.

Over the years I have made a few canoe trips upstream and downstream from E.C. Brown Memorial Park on the Welland River, which forms Pelham’s southern boundary.

The Welland River cannot compare with the more northern and pristine rivers that I have canoed, but it does have its own unique charm.

For example, if one travels downriver (to the east) from E.C. Brown Memorial Park they will encounter an historic and picturesque landmark spanning the river: O’Reilly’s Bridge.

At 106 years old, O’Reilly’s is the oldest bridge over the Welland River and one of the oldest of its kind in Southern Ontario. It was built in 1901, the same year Queen Victoria died.
It is a single-lane Parker truss bridge, quite unlike any other structure one can find spanning the Welland River.

When I recently learned that the Region of Niagara is considering removing O’Reilly’s Bridge in favour of constructing a larger, modern structure in its place, I decided to pay a visit to this local landmark.

Wild grapes vines creep along the concrete embankment adjacent to the iron bridge. Sprouting up from the shallow water were cattails, and dotting the surface were numerous lily pads. Arrowheads and other reeds grew in abundance along the shoreline.

At either end of this short bridge grow clusters of trees, and in the sheltered branches of a Manitoba Maple I noticed a bird’s nest. Its tenants, of course, had long since spread their wings and flown away.

In time past I have fished with friends underneath the bridge; something I am certain locals like myself have been doing for over a century under this bridge. Sunfish, largemouth bass, channel catfish, and the occasional northern pike constitute the main catch.

Even though it is October, I still see plenty of wild flowers growing along the edge of O’Reilly’s Road leading up to the crossing.

As I was observing this antique bridge, I found myself wondering why the Region would wish to remove it—and replace it with something large and modern.

While it is obviously in poor condition and in dire need of repair, tearing the bridge down and replacing it with a new one hardly seems like a logical solution.

Indeed, the Region’s consultant on this project estimated that the construction of the new bridge would cost 2.9 million dollars, whereas simply repairing the existing structure would cost only 1.3 million.

In other words, the Region could save 1.6 million in taxpayers’ money by preserving a piece of our heritage. Nor would constructing a two-lane concrete structure bridge in this rural area be an environmentally friendly undertaking.

The contention that the crossing needs to be expanded to two-lanes in order to accommodate existing traffic is flatly false. The consultant’s report on replacing the bridge claimed that the average daily traffic volume on the bridge was 600 to 700 vehicles.

In actual fact nine traffic counts conducted between 1999 and 2006 yielded a daily average of only 538 vehicles crossing the bridge.

The inflated numbers were the result of including traffic counts done while Beckett’s Bridge (the nearest river crossing to the west) was closed. The closure of that bridge increased traffic on O’Reilly’s to an average of 910 vehicles per day.

When Beckett’s Bridge re-opened, the average daily vehicle use of O’Reilly’s fell dramatically—to 477 vehicles per day.

Therefore, when examining the data in its proper context, it is clear that the bridge need not be replaced by a two-lane structure.

It is my sincere belief that replacing O’Reilly’s Bridge with a new bridge makes no sense from a heritage, environmental, and economical viewpoint. Indeed, it would be a shortsighted and costly decision.