ORMF

For native snakes, moraine's the `pits'

Student-built reptile residences keep them in area where they help balance environment

Jul 31, 2008 04:30 AM

Jim Wilkes
(Toronto Star) Staff Reporter


Holly Campbell has been spending the summer clearing trails and battling dog-strangling vine across the Oak Ridges Moraine.

But her eyes light up when she talks about building condos for snakes.

The snake pits, which can't be detected by casual observers in the forests north of Toronto from Caledon to Northumberland County, are layers of branches and rocks in deep holes that can harbour thousands of slithering reptiles.

And just like 16-year-old Campbell, all of them are friends of the environment.

"Everything we do makes a little difference," said the Whitby Grade 12 student, one of four Mo-Rangers – moraine rangers – hired by the Oak Ridges Moraine Foundation to work in its forests, hills and grasslands this summer.

"We're making the forest a better place."

The quartet of students from Durham Region has travelled the 160-kilometre length of the moraine from Caledon to Roseneath, southeast of Peterborough, getting to know some of the 170 bird species, 150 fish species, 1,200 plants and 150,000 people that inhabit the moraine.

"I had no idea it was this big," said Campbell, who started her own eco-club in Grade 3 because she was too young for the one run by her school.

The crew really got a kick out of building a hibernaculum – a sand-covered underground apartment building for snakes – in Alderville, near the south shore of Rice Lake. Among the most populous is the eastern hognose.

"Most of the time the snakes disperse, but the snake pits attract them to the area where they help keep the environment balanced," Campbell explained. "Literally thousands of snakes can live there."

Kate Potter, 28, who co-ordinates the program, said she's had an ongoing love affair with the big natural hump that is the moraine.

"I was playing and loving the area even before I knew it was the moraine, long before I realized what a precious resource it is," the Stouffville native said. "It's a natural gem, in my mind."

The greenbelt zone is important, she said, because it is the headwaters for 65 river systems in southern Ontario that feed both Lake Ontario and Georgian Bay.

It spans nine conservation authorities, dozens of municipalities and many public partners, but is an area in which 90 per cent of the land is in private hands, said Judy Gilchrist, program manager for the moraine foundation.

"It's a big important hump," she said. "It cleans the air, cleans the water, does so many important things."

Crew chief Matt Hubert, 31, has led his charges to various parts of the Greater Toronto Area to repair bridges and make new trails. That includes hunting the dastardly dog-strangling vine, an invasive plant from Europe that has no natural predators in Canada.

"It spreads at an amazing rate," said Hubert, who will attend teachers' college in September after finishing a science degree as a mature student.

"It can cover an entire forest floor and completely smother everything. It doesn't allow new trees to grow, so it essentially shuts down the production of a forest."

It's all new ground for Andrew Cottreau, 17, of Bowmanville, who's taken on the nasty buckhorn bush, another invasive species that can grow seven new branches from each stump that is cut.

He said he's even changed his mind about pursuing a business career and plans a future protecting the environment.

"As a summer job, this one is 11 on a scale of one to 10," he said. "It sure beats being inside flippin' burgers."

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