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Creating 'phrag-free' Tiny Marsh moves closer to reality

Dozens of volunteers, including Elmvale District High School students, have logged more than 400 hours working to rid marsh of invasive phragmites
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Volunteers put in a full day's work as they pulled the invasive species from Tiny Marsh recently.

A Midland-area group hopes to get some municipal funding to complete its “phrag-free” Tiny Marsh project.

Project manager Kate Harries and site manager David Hawke, who are both involved with the Marl-Tiny-Matchedash Conservation Association, appeared before Tiny council this week to request $9,000 for the initiative that’s designed to rid the popular, 2,300-acre provincial wildlife area of invasive phragmites.

While council hasn't yet decided on the request, Harries outlined the project’s importance in protecting the future of the marsh that’s located between the first and third concessions of Tiny Township.

"In the three years of the current project, we have made great strides, first in defining the problem - really, we had no idea of how much invasive phrag was out there until Dave Hawke went out in his canoe to identify every stand," Harries said. "In attacking what was a massive infestation in the heart of the township; and now, with an intimate knowledge of the on-the-ground situation, we are in a position to make a final push."

Tiny Marsh is used by a multitude of local residents for hiking, bird-watching, canoeing and simply enjoying the outdoors. It is designated an international "important birding area" and a provincially significant wetland.

The marsh project began in 2021 as a three-year initiative to map, evaluate impact and provide control measures to the invasive phragmites reed with initial funding coming from Environment Canada’s EcoAction program, Tiny Township and Ducks Unlimited Canada.

Funding is now required to complete the monitoring and touch-up spraying of the 2023 sites, apply chemicals to the remaining sites and extend the site manager position to oversee the work and continue focused mapping and evaluations.

"It's $9,000 from Tiny, towards a one-year $30,000 project," Harries said of funds now required. "We are hoping there will be an opportunity to seek core funding from Environment Canada. Ducks Unlimited Canada (and MTM) has committed $3,000."

Invasive phragmites are aggressive plants that spread quickly and pose a considerable threat to Ontario’s environment and economy. Phragmites compete with native species for water and nutrients. Growing up to five metres in height and up to one metre below ground, phragmites form dense stands that generally provide poor habitat and food for wildlife, including several species at risk.

Once established, phragmites can grow into dense, single species stands that can degrade local environments including reducing biological diversity, impacting infrastructure, agriculture, recreation, tourism and public safety.

So far, nearly three hectares of phragmites have been removed from the marsh with cut-to-drown technique using Truxors with no regrowth reported while a further two hectares worth of phragmites have been sprayed with chemicals.

“When we started this project, we had no clear understanding of the exact dimension of the challenge – how much phrag was there, how could we tackle it, or how long it would take?” she noted. “So, despite a successful three years’ work, we will reach the end of our financial year on March 31 with one more year of work yet to be done.

“We believe this project delivers value for money, and it would be a shame to leave the remaining stands of phragmites as a ticking time bomb to recolonize the wetland. We know how fast that can happen.”

By leaving the cut stems on site, the bundles and islands created provide needed shelter habitat for amphibians and reptiles along with resting sites for migrating shorebirds and waterfowl, according to Harries.

“There has been much curiosity as to the methods and results of the Tiny Marsh Phrag Free project,” Harries noted. “It appears that we are one of the ‘cutting edge’ projects in the province.”

For the following year, the $30,000 would cover $26,000 for what has been the main expense each year (mechanical/chemical treatment by the Invasive Phragmites Control Centre) and $4,000 for planning, site assessment and monitoring.

“We will be applying to the Green Shovels Collaborative if they receive funds to support projects like ours, and looking for any other potential sources, governmental or other,” she added.

The Severn Sound Environmental Association recently received $9,000 from Green Shovels Collaborative’s Invasive Phragmites Control Fund to combat the plant in its catchment area.

To truly remove phragmites, the roots must be killed either by drowning, applying a chemical or totally removing the plant.

According to Harries, 60 volunteers have logged more than 400 hours working to rid the marsh of the species while Elmvale District High School students have participated in two field days.

“Having the dead standing stems removed by volunteers prior to spraying greatly enhanced the effectiveness of the spray program on new growth leaves,” Harries noted.

While the reedy plant was initially introduced into southern Ontario as a landscape option as exotic grass was often used to highlight wet areas on a property, Harries noted It quickly escaped from domestic plantings and established itself in wet ditches and shallow wetlands.

“Phrag grows very quickly, very densely and very tall,” she said. “It spreads by seeds and rapid root growth. The stems are very coarse (almost woody).”

And there are no animal browsers or caterpillars or other insects who eat the reed. As well, according to the pair’s presentation, it is not vulnerable to any disease organisms while warmer winters (with fewer deep frost days), coupled with wet and hot summers are favoured by phragmites for rapid and continuous growth.

“There is also a native variety of phragmites that grows commonly and naturally in Simcoe County, it is less tall, less dense and has established a niche within the local ecology where it does not present a threat,” the presentation noted, adding that due its rapid and dense growth, it has created problems on both a biological and economic level.

Biologically, the plant has displaced native vegetation with a monoculture of itself. The dense growth restricts wildlife movement for turtles, ducklings and amphibians, thereby removing critical habitat requirements.

For municipal budgets, the plant has “caused chaos” by blocking drainage ditches, increased fire and smoke risk and interfered with both road intersection visibility and shore use and visibility.

“Phragmites is now the most annoying alien species in southern Ontario and is costing many municipalities extensive funding to control and manage,” Harries said.

The project also involves researching how best to control phragmites and has featured extensive research and consultation done with Ontario Invasive Species Centre, Dr. Lynn Short, master naturalist Bob Bowles, a Couchiching Conservancy ecologist (Hawke) and Dr. Janice Gilbert of Ontario Invasive Phragmites Control Centre.

There are also hopes the ongoing initiative will further educate the public about the threats posed by invasive phragmites and participate in projects designed to get ride of them.

The group has also produced and distributed a brochure describing the threats of phragmites and promoting the ‘Phrag Free’ project. It has also made presentations to various organizations across the county.

Earlier this year, a “Phrag Fighter” summit was held at the marsh with participants attending from Parks Canada (Georgian Bay Islands National Park, Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre, Severn Sound Environmental Association, Georgian Bay Forever, Ducks Unlimited Canada and the MTM board.

The volunteer-based MTM Conservation Association (MTM) is the non-government organization and registered charity that has agreed, in partnership with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, to conduct required management of three conservation areas (the Marl Lake, Tiny Marsh, and Matchedash Bay Provincial Wildlife Areas) and to manage these wetlands for the benefit of the natural resources and the environment and for the enjoyment of traditional community users and the public at large.

According to Harries, the marsh's history is tied heavily to the township.

“Between 1892 and 1922, the township tried multiple times to drain the lake with municipal drains to improve farmland in the area with limited success,” her presentation noted.

“Several farmers attempted to make a living on the drained land but few crops were produced, taxes and drainage fees became overdue and the ownership of the land reverted back to the township. In the 1960s, the land was transferred to the Departments of Lands and Forests who reflooded the area to create the managed wetland that is there today.”


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Andrew Philips

About the Author: Andrew Philips

Editor Andrew Philips is a multiple award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in some of the country‚Äôs most respected news outlets. Originally from Midland, Philips returned to the area from Québec City a decade ago.
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