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New program pays farmers and protects turtles

New program pays farmers and protects turtles

In the unfrozen depths of Nova Scotia’s waterways there slumbers a handsome turtle, its carapace dark with the rough texture of wood, its underbelly yellow with brushstrokes of black. And soon they’ll be awake, emerging from their aquatic hibernation with unsurprising sluggishness.They are called wood turtles, one of four semi-aquatic species to inhabit the province and by far the most outgoing. In pursuit of food and nesting grounds this enterprising reptile can travel quite a distance from its stream of choice, but sadly it’s this same unreservedness which has forced them into a marked decline.
Fewer of them are likely to emerge from our waterways this year than last, and the reasons are many. They suffer deaths on roadways, there is poaching and predation, the development of their habitat and fatal collisions with agricultural equipment. This last is among the most widespread threats to the species locally and in Canada, but soon the farmers of Nova Scotia will be able to strike it off the list.
Simon Greenland-Smith is the project manager of Wood Turtle Strides, an initiative of the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture (NSFA) which seeks to forge a lasting peace between the lands being farmed and the turtles that visit them.
“One of the best places for wood turtles to find food are hay fields, where they search for worms, slugs and berries,” said Greenland-Smith. “Unfortunately, they often come into contact with mowing equipment or tractor tires.”
During the month of June, in particular, hungry turtles fresh from hibernation find themselves on farmland for the first cut of hay, a dangerous arrangement for a species not easily spotted. Greenland-Smith said there are an estimated 2,000 to 8,000 Wood turtles across Nova Scotia, occurring in isolated pockets along the Annapolis, St. Mary’s and Musquodoboit watersheds, among others. Given their slow rates of reproduction, the increasing fragmentation of their riverside habitat and their status as a species-at-risk, the loss of even a few individuals has far reaching consequences.
“The Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture has been increasingly aware of biodiversity concerns on farmland,” said Greenland-Smith, “and we’ve decided to do something about it.”

 With a grant from Environment and Climate Change Canada, the NSFA is offering financial incentives to farmers across the province for making minor changes on behalf of this threatened turtle. In its ongoing effort to preserve the species, the federal government has identified what’s called critical habitat, lands within the province necessary for the wood turtle’s recovery, and any farm containing this habitat is eligible for up to $15,000 from Wood Turtle Strides.
 Greenland-Smith said that if farmers have ever seen this particular reptile on their property, they’re likely eligible, but even if they haven’t, a quick call to the NSFA will let them know for sure. Money from the program belongs entirely to the landowner and is typically earned in the course of a five-year stewardship agreement. In that time they must follow a management plan developed specifically for their property, its requirements as straightforward as raising mower blades above the height of wood turtles or leaving more space between crops and critical habitat.
Greenland-Smith said his program began signing on farmers in April of this year and while people can take part until March of 2018, he expects the majority of participants will be on board in the next few months. Interested landowners do no need to be members of the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture to participate and at present, there’s no limit to the number of farms Greenland-Smith can sign up.
 zack.metcalfe@gmail.com
 Zack Metcalfe is a freelance environmental journalist, author, and writer of the Endangered Perspective. He operates out of Halifax. Anyone interested in taking part of the Wood Turtle Strides program is encouraged to contact Simon Greenland-Smith at 902-402-9545 or by email at sgreenlandsmith@nsfa-fane.ca.