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Hidden Valley thinks of the skinks with tallgrass plan

Norfolk News,
J.P. Antonacci,
April 10 2016

Normandale-area RV park conducts prescribed burn to restore habitat of Ontario’s only native lizard

Ontario’s only native lizard – the five-lined skink – has five cream-coloured stripes running along its upper torso, ending in a bright blue tail.

The Carolinian skink population also has the dubious distinction of being on provincial and federal endangered species lists.

According to conservationist non-profit Ontario Nature, the skinks’ precarious position is largely due to habitat loss, as forests, meadows and Lake Erie shoreline is turned into farmland or developed for homes or businesses.

A Normandale company is trying to do its part to give local skinks a place to thrive.

Last week, Hidden Valley Carefree RV Resort arranged for a controlled burn of a 1.4-acre patch of grassland on its Mole Side Road property.

The aim of the fire was to burn away grass, plants and small trees to give the centuries-old grass seeds contained within the soil room to sprout.

The resultant tallgrass meadow will become a habitat for the skinks, snakes and other wildlife that frequent the RV park, says Larry Harrison, Hidden Valley’s resort manager.

“I call them pockets of paradise,” he said of the RV park’s grassland and Carolinian forest.

The prescribed burn came about because Hidden Valley wanted to expand its property – part of which has a provincial ANSI designation as an area of natural and scientific interest – and conducted an environmental assessment.

The ANSI zone includes habitat for skinks, as well as endangered butternut trees, and hibernation nooks for Eastern hog nose and Eastern fox snakes, two species of concern.

“It’s snake habitat for hunkering down in the winter,” Harrison said of the shallow, cave-like holes in which snakes spend the colder months.

The area is of such ecological interest, Harrison said the Toronto Zoo is organizing an awareness walk on the property.

He credited Carefree for investing in a tallgrass prairie management plan – in place since 2013 – at Hidden Valley.

“It takes several years, and it’s taken a lot of money,” he said of the company’s plan to expand in an ecologically responsible manner.

Harrison, a longtime naturalist and property manager who was hired on at Hidden Valley last month, is also spreading awareness of the park’s special environmental features with his staff.

As an example, Harrison said if employees or campers see a piece of garbage on the ground, they are to gently lift it up and check underneath for a resting skink. If they spot the lizard, they are to slowly put the trash down and mark the area around it, a signal to others that it is not to be disturbed until the skink has left.

“To me, a recreation property starts with an awareness of the land – your soil, vegetation and rock types,” Harrison said. “And I think you should build community around the land. You shouldn’t try to alter it (with development). Work with what you have.”

The fire was designed to make room for older species of tallgrass to emerge, explained Jason Sickle of Lands and Forests Consulting, which carried out the prescribed burn.

This was achieved by burning woody stems, spruces and young saplings. Any visible grass is also burned so it doesn’t “shade out” older seeds looking for opportunity to grow, he added.

“Without fire, you can’t get rid of that cold-season overgrowth – that competition,” Sickle said.

The fire – which was lit and extinguished within half an hour – doesn’t eliminate all undesired vegetation. Newer grasses and trees will creep back over time, and will be burned off again so the old-growth prairie can expand, Sickle said.

“After each burn, it just gets bigger and bigger.”

Sickle called the eventual tallgrass meadow that will grow at the site a “remnant prairie,” because the grass species are more than a century old. The heat from the fire “kick-starts the germination process,” he said, and the burnt vegetation provides an added bonus.

“The ash is full of nitrogen and nutrients. So then when the rains come tonight, it’ll punch the (nutrients) down into the root system of that warm-season seed that’s sitting in there, dormant.”

Harrison looks forward to seeing a new habitat on the site in which skinks can live safely.

“It will have to be cared for on a regular basis, because that other woody stuff will try to get back in. So we’ll keep an eye on it.”