For peat’s sake: preserving wetlands in the Haliburton Highlands
Mapping wetlands is one of the first steps to providing them legal protection, prohibiting development that could hinder their ability to filter water, mitigate flooding, safeguard wildlife, and sequester carbon.
On the heels of a recent mapping project in Minden Hills on behalf of the Haliburton Highlands Land Trust, biologist Paul Heaven spoke at an Environment Haliburton/HHLT event in Haliburton Jan. 14 about the different types of wetlands that exist, why they’re important and what threatens their existence.
With the assistance of a federal government grant, the land trust evaluated the Kendrick Creek Wetland Complex, accounting for 840 hectares (about 2,076 acres) from the Barry Wetland to Snowdon Park to Gelert. Heaven said the land is provincially significant; when the paperwork is complete, that designation will afford the property protections against development.
Evaluation projects are crucial to preserving wetlands, Heaven said.
“By getting a good mapping base and fully understanding where our wetlands are, how much wetland we actually have, might avoid conflicts where one consultant is saying ‘there’s no wetland there,’ one is saying ‘it is there,’ the planner’s in the middle going, ‘where do I go from here?’” Heaven said.
Kendrick Creek was a test project and the land trust hopes that more mapping will follow.
He specified that the wetland mapping is different from the LiDAR mapping that is underway. Wetlands don’t all look the same. Depending on how much the water stagnates, they can be quite fluid, as in the case of marshes, or relatively solid, as you might find in a bog.
“When you’re looking at a black spruce swamp on a treed landscape, the level’s the same, it’s not necessarily a dip or anything, it’s a flat surface,” he said.
Heaven explained to the group that there are four types of wetlands: marshes, fens, bogs and swamps.
Peat, created in bogs and fens from dead plant material, looks a lot like soil, but is actually nutrient-rich and has a long history with humans. When burned, it can create a heat source and people have used it for cooking and home heating. It’s also good for agriculture, adding nutrients to the soil.
Heaven said it takes about 1,000 years for one metre of peat to accumulate and when he’s doing his work on wetlands, he’ll often sink his auger 10 metres into the peat.
“Some of the stuff I’m pulling up is actually 10,000 years old,” he said.
“If you’re looking at that peat and you see a leaf or a seed in that, that leaf or seed could be 10,000 years old.”
Peat also has a gloomier history in Europe, where it seems it was a favoured resting place for corpses – particularly of people who were murdered. Heaven said many well-preserved bodies have been found in bogs overseas.
The Lindow Man, for example, was discovered in 1984 in a bog in northwest England. Reporting suggests he was a man in his 20s, with evidence of strangulation and trauma to the head and cuts on the throat. It’s estimated he died between 2 BC and 119 AD.
“They’re not rotting; they’re thousands of years old, but they’re not rotting at all,” Heaven said of the bodies found. (Many animals have also been discovered in bogs, perhaps stepping in the wrong spot and sinking in.)
Heaven said there are guidelines to keeping wetlands healthy, including keeping a vegetation buffer and a sizeable setback between the wetland and any residence, using floating docks or pier-supported docks, and refraining from activities that would alter the drainage.
He said he worried about the activity of some off-road vehicles, which are being built with waterproof features, encouraging riders to take them through swamps and marshes.
“Taking an ATV through a wetland not only destroys the habitat, it completely changes the hydrology of that wetland,” he said.