Alvinston area will be home to new Sydenham River Nature Preserve

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A walk along the proposed Sydenham River Nature Preserve near Alvinston. Ontario Nature Photo

A local environmentalist is “over the moon” as Ontario Nature plans to preserve the freshwater mussel capital of Canada near Alvinston.

The conservation group has an agreement to purchase 192-acres of ravine land near Alvinston which borders on Middlesex County. An almost two-kilometer stretch of the Sydenham River winds through the middle of the property. Twenty-three species at risk have been recorded there including birds, plants, reptiles, fish and freshwater mussels – all nine of which are listed as endangered in Canada, according to Ontario Nature.

Earlier this year, Lambton Wildlife’s Larry Cornelis noticed a for sale sign in an area which had already been designated as one of the best examples of the rare Carolinian Forest. After doing some research, he found the Clement family and found they were interested in preserving their unique property.

“The Sydenham river is such a special system we have here and not to many people know about it and how uniquely rich it is…there really isn’t  something with the river through it that is protected,” says Cornelis. He adds the area is forested with rare trees like the Kentucky Coffee Tree and Sycamores, has acres of Virgina Bluebell flowers and many unique breeding birds. “This is such a great forest corridor with the river running through it; is a very unique habitat.

“And the turtles! The Spiny Turtle and the Map Turtle…oh my gosh..if you go to another 200 acre property, you might find one or two species at risk…this property will have 20 or 30 or more.”

Cornelis worked with Sydenham Field Naturalist to make a pitch to  Ontario Nature, which buys properties with ecological value and makes sure the ecosystem is preserved. Cornelis says at first he was concerned.

“They were just finishing another big project and didn’t want to take on another campaign,” he says. But by the time Cornelis and the field naturalist were done explaining the land’s significance, the people at Ontario Nature were “blown away” by the importance of the area. “He got really excited…saying we do not have a single nature reserve with a river running through it.”

By February, Ontario Nature reached a deal with the landowner to buy the property for $700,000.

Now, John Hassell of Ontario Nature says they’re beginning a fundraising drive to secure the rights to the property and develop a fund to care for it.

Ontario Nature wants to raise $900,000 by September to purchase the land and create a trust for it. So far, $600,000 has been raised.

“We heard the property was up for sale and the owner gave us a slight discount on the sale – so he is a partner – and there are a number of groups which have pleadged money and there have been pledges from companies already.”

Ontario Nature recently started its online campaign asking donors and supporters to come forward.

Hassell says this is the 25th property the group is trying to preserve and it is much different than the others. It is a ravine and is filled with at risk species. “Ontario Nature looks at species at risk in the province and are trying to protect them. This is sort of a neat property because parts were farmland and we’ll be trying to renaturalize it.”

Hassell says there may also be an opportunity for trails and a canoe launch so people can explore the area.

“The Sydenham has become a very, very clean river and probably the ecological value of this area is through the great work of others (like the St. Clair Region Conservation Authority) who helped clean it up.”

“What makes the Sydenham River even more important,” says Caroline Schultz, executive director with Ontario Nature, “is that its watershed is the only significant one located entirely within Ontario’s Carolinian zone.”

The river provides habitat for species at risk including the spiny softshell turtle. At least 34 different species of freshwater river mussels thrive in the river including nine endangered species.

“The region is one of the last remaining connected green corridors in southwestern Ontario that is not along the shorelines of the Great Lakes,” says Tanya Pulfer, conservation science manager with Ontario Nature. “But it will only be there if we don’t let up our efforts to preserve it.”

And Cornelis, who says he’s “over the moon” at how well the campaign to secure the land has been going, says it will be a lasting heritage for people in Lambton County.

“The education factor will be huge for our local community and people will get to learn about it and why it is special and needs protection.”

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