Building a Buffer - Natural Shorelig project aims to revitalize and protect



Article by Matt Driscoll

Stretching some 210 km from the western slopes of Algonquin Park to Georgian Bay, the Muskoka River watershed is the largest of its kind in the region and provides habitat shelter and food for roughly 90 per cent of the area’s aquatic wildlife.

Much of the viability of the Muskoka watershed, which also includes 19 sub-watersheds and 2,000 plus lakes are contingent on the health of thousands of kilometres of shoreline.

“The more natural the shoreline is, the more healthy it is,” says Rebecca Willison, watershed planning technician at District Municipality of Muskoka.

That’s why for the past three years the Muskoka Watershed Council has been administering the Natural Edge program locally.

Although shorelines are one of the richest environments on earth, they are also among the most threatened. Habitat loss and degradation, water quality impairments and increasing pressures from shoreline development deteriorate lakes and rivers, making them a priority for environmental stewardship and restoration.

As part of the Natural Edge program, the Muskoka Watershed Council provides free site visits to anyone requesting it in the Muskoka area. That visit includes recommendations on how to improve the health of your shoreline, suggestions on appropriate vegetation and the opportunity to purchase a shoreline re-naturalization starter kit.

“We’ve seen huge growth in the program over the past three years,” says Willison.

In 2019, the watershed council conducted 17 site visits and distributed five starter kits. The following year, it was 24 site visits and 16 starter kits, and by the end of July this year that number had risen to 25 site visits and 10 starter kits, with many more site visits planned and a waiting list on top of that.

“A large part of that growth has been word of mouth and more promotion coming from lake associations,” says Willison. “For example, the Loon and Turtle Lake Association began promoting the program and we quickly had 15 landowners contact us for site visits and information.”

Willison says the same was true for the Lake of Bays area, where they saw a major push in participants following promotion from the Lake of Bays Association.

“A lot of people simply don’t know how to get rid of their lawn or which plants to use for naturalization,” she says. “We teach them which plants to use and then provide them with the resources to help get started. Once they’re established, they’re usually good to go but getting them established properly is essential.”

Each shoreline re-naturalization starter kit costs $250 and includes a customized re-naturalization planting plan, 50 native plants including trees, shrubs and wildflowers, coconut fibre pads to deter grass from growing around new plantings, tree guards for deciduous trees, mulch for wildflowers and various guides and resources.

“Each visit typically takes between one and one and half hours and they’re all free, confidential and voluntary,” says Willison. “We also help them develop a planting plan which they can take right to the nursery. We find more and more nurseries in Muskoka are now carrying native plants and we can point people in the direction of those that do.”

Willison says she also likes to point out the native species that are already thriving on the shoreline.

“I think there is a bit of a misconception out there that natural plants are a bit blah but there are many beautiful native species like black-eyed susans, serviceberry shrubs and cardinal flowers, just to name a few,” says Willison.

Willison says in addition to increasing the health of the watershed, naturalized shorelines can also provide a number of benefits, including the ability to make your property more resistant to flooding.

“Fifty per cent of water evaporates via trees and shrubs, so having those on your property will help you get back to normal more quickly after flooding,” she says. “They also help bind the soil together which helps prevent erosion.”

Canada geese are a common problem in the region and Willison says the wider open a waterfront property is the more likely it is to become home to flocks of geese.

“Geese are prey animals and they want to be able to see clearly in every direction,” she says. “Even a few boulders or shrubs will help keep them away from your property.”

The importance of pollinators to the ecosystem is widely known and another important aspect of naturalization.

During site visits Willison says she’s also keen to point out invasive species on the property. Many times the owners have no knowledge of what is considered invasive.

“Things like lily of the valley, goat weed and periwinkle are all invasive and will spread out into the forest,” says Willison. “I can’t tell you how many properties I’ve gone to where the entire understory has been taken over by invasive species. We already have the good stuff here we just need to be able to keep it.”

Although there is a lot of work to do  Willison says more and more she sees property owners,  both new and established, showing more enthusiasm and interest for re-naturalizing the shoreline. The biggest key is education, she says, but if word continues to spread on the importance of a healthy shoreline there is no reason to believe Muskoka won’t continue to make inroads in preserving and protecting one of the region’s most abundant and important ecosystems.