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A Creek Restored

ConservationIssue 2NatureNature Issue 2

Many landowners undertake water protection or enhancement projects with a focus on protecting and enhancing water quality for drinking water and wildlife habitat. Then there are other landowners like Bill Grierson of Sayer’s Mill whom rejuvenated an entire creek system. Twenty years ago he purchased a former farm that had been destroyed by the previous tenants. The creek and historical mill pond were clogged up with garbage, debris, and waist deep in silt. Bill says “I started from the worst possible. Horses tore up the land, the creek was clogged, and the previous tenants used it as a garbage dump. I pulled out an oven once. But I saw that the place had potential”.

After all of his efforts, including taking a chain saw to clear up the clogs, planting close to 15,000 trees in total at this time of writing, and building something called a ‘fish ladder’, the creek is now a pristine, thriving natural space. Conservation Halton nominated him for the Green Leader Award from Trees Ontario because his profound ongoing commitment.

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The Creek Today

Because of Bill’s extensive efforts, Conservation Halton staff have seen uncommon and unique species of dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies, and bumblebees. Some of the most exciting sightings have been a Williamson’s Emerald Dragonfly, a Yellow-banded Bumblebee, and a Broad-winged Skipper. Insects aren’t the only ones thriving here: Peal Dace have been present, and Blue-spotted Salamanders are flourishing here. Bill, a self-proclaimed conservationist, through his commitment to preserving the environment, has transformed the area into a flourishing ecosystem.

First, we’ll read about the Sayer’s Mill Family Farm story from Bill himself, and then a follow-up Q+A with Bill on how the family farm is thriving, and his future plans.

Sayer’s Mill – A Family Farm Water Story or

The Grierson Family Farm – Redside Dace Habitat Improvement Project. 

By Bill Grierson

When we bought the property, it had been rented for many decades and the previous tenants had terribly abused the natural environment. The fields had been sprayed, and any hardwood trees suitable for firewood were cut down, leaving only white cedar. The fields, woods and waterway had been used as a dumping ground, and one of our first tasks was to remove huge amounts of debris. The whole family worked over a number of years, removing scrap metal (even washing machines, car parts etc.), garbage, broken glass etc. from areas throughout the farm. Probably the worst was the edge of the mill pond directly behind the farm, which had been used for decades as a common dumping ground. Household garbage and larger items (mattresses, rusty metal etc.) had been dumped down the slope and extended into the pond. We worked very hard cleaning this area, taking countless loads of debris away. Even after this was cleaned, for years after, we returned to collect any glass, etc. that the frost brought up out of the soil, and then we were able to replant the area.

With the previous tenants clear cutting any hardwood species for firewood, there was little diversity, so we undertook the project of planting the eighty-two acres. Initially we bought trees from nurseries, but then we used rooting powder to cultivate cuttings of dogwood, willow etc. to plant along the water ways. This was especially important along the pond edge, which lacked a riparian buffer zone. In 2012, the initial planting with Conservation Halton was 8000 trees. We have also planted every spring since. In May 2013, Conservation Halton returned and planted another 1413 trees. This spring alone we’ve planted another 3300. The total of planted native trees since 2012 is now closer to 15,000. The trees are diverse species as recommended by Conservation Halton. We included many nut bearing trees which are a source of food for wildlife. When the 8,000 trees had been planted, we were also able to obtain about 300 tiny saplings. With volunteers from the whole Grierson family, we were able to successfully plant this along both sides of the pond and stream, once again improving the riparian vegetation.

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Unfortunately, beyond the millpond, previous tenants had devastated the entire stream. Garbage from their dumping had flowed along, or been dumped there, and the garbage blocked the flow. Because of this, branches and other debris completely clogged and polluted the stream. I purchased hip waders and found the stream so clogged with silt and mud that there was little chance for fish species to live there, and so I began the long clean up. This was done over a few years, partly because we did not want rapid change to affect the existing ecosystem. But it meant removing a huge amount of debris, and with a chainsaw we slowly broke up the log jams of debris.

Amazingly, once the stream was free to flow again, it began to transform. Each spring rush was able to flow through and carry away the sludge and silt into the marsh below. Today the stream is pristine. It now has a clear, pebbly bottom, a few clean sandbars, and a number of deep pools where fish such as redside dace can live. We have allowed the area to remain undisturbed and with thick shaded tree growth, and the fish population has rebounded. With the original gravel and pebble bed returned, fish are now abundantly spawning along the bottom. Because of the possible spawning of Redside Dace, we do not disturb these areas and they have become a pristine natural environment in which fish can flourish.

We were also able to remove debris and huge tree stumps that clogged the waterway entering the millpond, and had been also used as a dumping ground. Once the natural spring gush was allowed to flow uninhibited, beautiful pebbly spawning bed was revealed. The steam is able to flow in a natural and strong force. It carved out deep shaded pools along the edge. It’s a perfect year-round refuge for fish and other species to congregate even in the coldest winters. There is a natural spring gushing from the ground on the far bank and we were able to enlarge the pool it flows into. Since the spring prevents freezing, this pool is an ideal year‐round refuge for various fish species, and has a beautiful sandy bottom now and clear water.

We also undertook numerous other projects to improve the natural ecosystem of the property, such as:

  • Building numerous nesting boxes for species such as bluebirds, screech owl kestrels, swallows, wood ducks etc. We also built bat houses!
  • Never allowing recreational vehicles, hunters, etc. on the property, so that wildlife live undisturbed
  • Identifying invasive species throughout the property…buckhorn, scotch pine etc. with florescent tape, and then removing them.
  • This past year we fostered an endangered Blanding’s turtle, with assistance from three biologists and a turtle rescue facility. We kept it for over a year to recover from a car injury. We worked closely with the species-at-risk biologists to reintroduce it to nature.
  • The children in the Grierson household have fostered a number of orphan wild species while they are in transition to a wildlife rescue facility.

We have never cultivated or sprayed pesticide on the farm fields. The fields now have grown to a natural state and are thriving. We have seen a huge increase in species such as tree frogs and salamanders, and in our special protected vernal pool. We believe we have seen Jefferson Salamanders. Without the presence of pesticides, the amphibian species have increased. We are working with Conservation Halton to ensure that the unique biospheres, such as the vernal pool is identified as “unique and protected”, as well as working with biologists to confirm populations of Jefferson’s salamander, and red‐side dace, so that the property will maintain a protected status ongoing. 

Protecting the environment is an ongoing project for the Grierson family. We are very happy to be working with Conservation Halton and have reclaimed the land around the waterway, specifically the millpond. We use fences to block access by the horses on the farm. This project included a number of stages:

  • Rebuilding the culvert to allow the stream to flow more naturally through an arched culvert
  • Fencing horses away from pond, stream, and spring
  • Incorporating a nose‐pump system to keep livestock well away from waterway
  • Planting various species of plants to create a new riparian buffer zone along the pond edge

Our family is committed and dedicated to protecting the natural environment on the Grierson farm. We are determined to continue our efforts in improving the ecosystem and returning the property to a thriving natural state.

Bill Grierson inspecting a bird house

Bill Grierson inspecting a bird house

Q+A with Bill Grierson

When did you buy the property?

We’ve had the property for about twenty years, and we started restoring it around 2010, which is when we started to plant. 2012 is when we started working with Conservation Halton, and 2012 was the first big tree plant.

What’s the story of Sayer’s Mill itself?

It was previously a farm when we bought it, but originally it was a lumber mill between 1847-1920. Between 1847 and 1920, it was a very successful lumber mill, but by the early 1920s all of the lumber had been stripped from the area, and the mill had to close. The walls and the mill pond are still there to this day.

How many years did it take to clear out the rubbish from the creek and the millpond?

The initial clean-up took about two years. Frost pushed up pieces after the big clean-up, and we had to keep checking on it until it was pristine again. 

How long did it take to plant 8000 trees? How are the trees now?

Jennifer Roberts, from Conservation Halton, was instrumental in having the trees planted. She brought out her staff and they used a machine to put the trees in the ground.  The trees are as tall as my kids now! Some are of the trees are pampered with tree guards to protect them from rabbits and deer. I’m constantly working on protecting them. 

How are the fish doing? 

Conservation Halton had some of their staff to come out and monitor the fish population. There has definitely been an increase in the fish population. Kent Rundle (another staff member) came out and used electro fishing for monitoring, and they’ve had some rare sightings [like Peal Dace!].

I see spawning beds now. Before, it looked like silt, and then it looked like sand bars and pebbly grounds. That was a big change. When I got here the stream couldn’t freely flow, there were logs and garbage, almost 100 years of silt build-up. I opened it up and after that the water flowed, and fish immediately began to spawn. Their nests are circular. You can see them spawning. We don’t allow anyone near them during spawning season. You can also see them swim upstream. The pond and creek are fed by a number of springs, so it can never dry up, and it also keeps the water cool for fish.

Originally, there was a mill pond and a dam that was clogged up. I believe they used dynamite to open it up. When that was cleared up, the fish were able to move up the stream, but there was a little waterfall and the fish couldn’t get up the waterfall, so I made a fish ladder.

What’s a fish ladder and how do you make one?

Instead of a drop from the waterfall opening to the pond, I gradually built up the bottom in gradual steps, so that the fish can jump from one step to the next. I see them jumping, and I can see the babies upstream.

What wildlife have you seen? 

I’ve seen mammals like mink, and muskrats moving up and down the water’s edge. I’ve also seen weasels, wild turkeys, green heron, lots of deer, and we even had beaver for a while.

What are your future plans?

It gets better every year. We do put nest boxes in every year, and we keep adding to them. That’s something that’s ongoing and it’s been successful. We get bluebirds, wood ducks, and tree swallows. I also remove all the invasive species I can find, like buckthorn. I use a chainsaw, and then I poison the stumps. We removed anything manmade this year – a dock, a fire pit, now it’s pretty much done, other than continuing to plant the shores. I spend every year planting trees along the shores and restoring the riparian barriers. All the plants are native species. I want to continue the plantings with the goal of getting Provincially Significant Wetlands status. (Provincially Significant Wetlands are those which have been evaluated using the Ontario Wetland Evaluation system and have received a high score). I’ve spent all this time making it pristine. My goal is to protect it. I endlessly nag Conservation Halton staff to check for those endangered species so this area is classified as something special. I don’t want to risk something so beautiful to development.

The Grierson children with their birdhouses

The Grierson children with their birdhouses

What would protection status give you?

If an animal is a species-at-risk, and is confirmed to live in an area, there’s no way you can develop the land. You can protect it. I have a vernal pool, and there’s a good chance I have Jefferson in there. If they prove that, then that status protects the habitat:  if I died, no one could damage it or develop it. I’m a conservationist: the more protection I get on the property the better.

One part of the creek is called Provincially Significant, because it’s never been developed. There’s no way anyone could do anything to it or develop it, my whole goal is to get the whole creek to classify it, that way no one can ever touch it.

It’s because of landowners like Bill Grierson that Conservation Halton is able to help restore, and protect private lands. You can be the next steward of the environment in Halton Region. Conservation Halton offers a free environmental assistance program to landowners in its jurisdiction called Halton Watershed Stewardship (formerly the Hamilton-Halton Watershed Stewardship Program). Contact us and you could change the environment for the better, too. 

Contributions from: Bill Grierson and Colleen Lavender, Watershed Stewardship Technician

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Last modified: September 5, 2017

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