Over the years, TNC has engaged in restoring McCabe's forests to create wildlife habitat, including for migratory and resident birds, and to promote storage and filtering of water moving into the Broadkill River from nearby agricultural fields.
From 1993 until 2018, TNC leased 39 acres of farm fields on the preserve to local farmers who grew soy and corn in the sandy soil. In 2019, an opportunity arose to transform those farmlands into native forest thanks to funding made available as part of an agreement between the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and Purdue Foods to mitigate wastewater issues emerging from the company’s Georgetown plant. This made it possible for TNC to pursue a long-term vision for the property that included planting 11,700 shrubs and native trees including black oak, red oak, pin oak, swamp white oak, white oak, chestnut oak, chokeberry, persimmon, dogwood and black cherry.
By fall 2020, after two summers of growth, some of the trees had reached 6 feet in height. Birds and other wildlife are much more common throughout the former corn and soybean fields, too. The native plants and wildflowers that have grown up on their own between the trees provide seeds and attract insects for the birds to eat. There are little holes throughout the fields, indicating that small burrowing mammals are moving into the reclaimed farm fields as well. This likely explains why we’re seeing more hawks in the older trees along the field edges.
Our experiment of using 4-foot biodegradable tree tubes and smaller 18” cardboard tree shelters has shown us that the larger tubes were well worth the extra cost. Most of the trees that were protected by the tubes are two to three times taller than those that were protected only with the small compostable shelters. This could be due to a variety of factors, including better protection from deer and from cold and wind during winter and spring.
On the northeastern field near our barn we’ve had to battle an explosion of sweetgum trees that threatened to overtake a portion of the field. Mowing between the rows throughout the summer remains important to suppress competing vegetation. In many areas, native warm-season grasses and other native trees including loblolly pine and American holly have grown in on their own, often making up for trees that we planted that have since died. The bluebirds and blue grosbeaks enjoy perching on the tree tubes. And in the summer flycatchers such as Eastern kingbirds are using the fields for catching grasshoppers and flies.
TNC has also added a quarter-mile crushed-stone walking path to the reforestation area, which reveals progress of the tree growth and features Eastern Bluebirds commonly seen along the edges of the fields. Improvements to the trail include a bridge built across an agricultural ditch and piping installed underneath recycled asphalt millings across the natural drainage. These upgrades make the path easier to use throughout the year and enhance accessibility for visitors who may have difficulty walking on uneven surfaces.