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Maintaining a natural shoreline makes prudent environmental sense. Moreover, it represents a way conscientious waterfront property owners can make a positive difference to encourage native species of wildlife.
Although we often interpret “wildlife” as meaning only mammals, the term actually includes all living things, from insects and birds through to plants. Importantly, it also includes underwater life we cannot ordinarily see: crayfish, mussels, plants, fish and more.
So it’s not a huge leap for us to understand that if we dredge or rake the bottom of ponds, lakes, rivers and streams to make beaches and shallows we are actively and deliberately disrupting the life and habits of many species. And we’re killing or displacing them for exactly what reason? So that we can wade out for a refreshing swim without cutting our foot, potentially, on a mollusk?
Ironically, we are perplexed about why we don’t see as many loons or frogs as before – or why we don’t hear that unforgettable gurgling song of the American bittern in a marshy spot we drained.
Just as with other environmental topics, what all of us need to do is pause. We need to think about the direct effect of our actions upon the natural world we cherish. Then we need to adapt so we fit into the habitat, not “improve” it by destroying it.
That’s all well and good, you might think, for cottagers fortunate enough to have decent access to swimmable or navigable waterways. But what of those whose cottages border shallows which extend metres into the river? Parents get concerned about creatures such as clams and mussels – and sharp rocks – and insist upon raking the shallows so feet aren’t cut.
Chill! Before raking, think of how you’re destroying living creatures’ lives and homes – that is, their habitats. Solution? Put that rake away. Instead, include flexible, protective river shoes in the entire family’s swimming outfits so everyone can enjoy hours of safe fun.
Natural shorelines are richly diverse. A Ministry of Ontario factsheet, Preserving and Restoring Natural Shorelines, explains: “Ninety per cent of all lake life is born, raised and fed in the area where land and water meet. The shallow water and the first 10 to 15 metres of shoreland forms a ribbon of life around lakes and rivers that is essential to the survival of many species. This rich and complex habitat supports plants, micro-organisms, insects, amphibians, birds, mammals and fish.”
It is crucial for us to protect natural biodiversity of habitats such as shorelines. When we hack out native plants such as shrubs and trees at the water’s edge, we are removing birds’ nesting and feeding sites. As well, we create conditions for erosion because plants’ roots stabilize embankments.
Discover the creatures inhabiting shorelines by conducting your own fun field research. Buy the family a set of masks and snorkels then swim out to investigate what lives in the shallows.
Look at the bottom. Is it mucky, sandy or rocky – or does the shoreline change as you go deeper? What plants are growing? Stop so you can watch a school of fish swim past. Can you be still enough so they get used to your presence and start to feed? What’s that resting on a cattail at the water’s edge? Is it a damselfly or a dragonfly? Something darted away – was it a tadpole?
You’ll find an astonishing array of life living in the shallows. Make a list of what you’ve all seen when you get out of the water. Start purchasing a family library of identification books which describe the species you’ve found. Next time, you’ll undoubtedly discover more… perhaps that tadpole is almost a frog? That gives you a chance to discuss metamorphosis…
Have you seen signs along the Ottawa or other rivers which ask you to lower the speed of your outboard motors and jet skis? Such signs might display, “Protect our banks: No wash, please,” or other such words.
Who cares? Loons care. Plants care. Why? Large wakes from outboard motors drown loon and other shoreline nesting birds’ chicks. Over time, wakes erode riverbanks, killing plant life by exposing their root systems to air. Wakes create unpredictable conditions for swimmers, wind-sailors, kayakers and canoeists.
Think before you rev up that engine. In fact, recycle the gas-guzzler and get yourself an electric motor – or start paddling and improve your fitness while having your cottage fun.
Such activities start moving us along the path of becoming guardians to nature. This is a crucial step signifying we accept a nurturing, rather than destructively adaptive role.
Our European mindset clings onto the concept of ownership and adaptation regarding land. Being a guardian means stepping into a different role whereby we accept a long-term, sustainable goal. Guardianship means we consciously decide to act for the preservation of biodiversity so that future generations can still enjoy our natural world – and so the natural world can function properly. (Read about biodiversity’s importance at www.davidsuzuki.org/Forests/Biodiversity/Importance.asp)
Incidentally – all these ideas mean something else, too. You’ll be spending outdoor, healthy fun time with your family and friends. Isn’t that what cottage life is all about?
Katharine Fletcher telecommutes from Spiritwood Farm, north of Quyon. Her latest book, Capital Rambles: Exploring the National Capital Region, describes many nature tours including some in the Pontiac (find her books at L’Artizan and Lighthouse Books in Shawville or in bookshops and outfitters such as MEC in Ottawa/Gatineau. Contact her at email@example.com