Places We Protect

Middleford North Preserve


An open grassland of tall rust colored grass extends into the distance before ending at a line of trees along the horizon. White clouds float in the blue sky above.
Purple Love Grass Purple love grass at the site of a spring prescribed burn Hurley Tract. © Natasha Whetzel/TNC

Land conservation at Middleford North Preserve helps protect water quality in the Nanticoke River watershed.



Named for the Native and Indigenous peoples who inhabit the region, the Nanticoke River represents one of the Chesapeake Bay’s most productive tributaries. The surrounding 725,000-acre watershed supports a rich array of wildlife, including more rare plants than any other landscape on the Delmarva Peninsula. 

Over the years, The Nature Conservancy and our partners have protected an estimated 20% of the Nanticoke River watershed, including here in southern Delaware at Middleford North Preserve. Located just upstream from Seaford, the preserve hugs a portion of Gravelly Branch, a last undisturbed portion of the Nanticoke River watershed that hasn’t been channelized or dredged. It’s a place that retains the river’s wild and scenic character in the face of burgeoning development.




Sussex County, Delaware

Map with marker: Hybrid road and topographical map showing an orange pointer centered midway between Dover, DE and Salisbury, MD.


475 acres, including 2.5 miles of river frontage along the Nanticoke River and the Gravelly Branch tributary

Explore our work in Delaware

A green butterfly with brown and white eye-spots on its wings sips nectar from a small white flower.
Hessel's Hairstreak Butterfly (Callophrys hesseli) Atlantic white cedar provides the sole food source for the globally imperiled Hessel's Hairstreak during its caterpillar phase. © Garry Kessler

A Home for Imperiled Species

Deciduous swamps and upland forests boast a wide range of tree species, including red maple, blackgum, loblolly pine and sweetgum. Groves of Atlantic white cedar trees provide the sole caterpillar-stage food source for a population of the globally imperiled Hessel's hairstreak butterfly. 

The area is also home to globally and locally imperiled rare plant species such as seaside alder, Parker's piperwort and Long's bittercress. It provides feeding, staging, and nesting habitat for more than eighty species of migratory birds, including Eastern wood-peewee, American redstart, black-and-white warbler, Blackburnian warbler, Louisiana waterthrush and worm-eating warbler. 

As an undisturbed stretch of the Nanticoke River, the preserve provides important spawning and nursery grounds for species of fish including striped bass, hickory shad and river herring, as well as resident fish such as largemouth bass, redbreast sunfish, pumpkinseed sunfish and golden shiners.

Two people wearing yellow fire gear monitor a burn.
Good Fire TNC staff from DE, MD and PA took part in a controlled burn at Middleford North's Hurley Tract supported by local partners. April 2018. It was the first burn at the preserve. © TNC

Prescribed Burn at the Hurley Tract

Good Fire

The chapter conducted its first controlled burn at Middleford North in April 2018. TNC manages 45-acres of the 171-acre tract as an early successional scrub-shrub habitat. This habitat type is important for numerous species, especially our declining shrubland-dependent birds including field sparrow, American woodcock and Northern bobwhite.

A prescribed fire is a methodically planned and carefully managed forest fire that is intentionally set under controlled conditions. Prescribed burns thin out dense brush and restore soils by recycling nutrients in the form of ashes. These carefully managed burns can also help reduce the chance that unplanned wildfires grow too hot and out of control, due to the buildup of fuels in the form of dense brush and dead plant matter.

Just a few short weeks after the Hurley Tract burn, native grasses and milkweed were growing vigorously in the area. Ten weeks post-burn, native purple love grass was growing extensively throughout the site. These meadows support a multitude of pollinator and insect species that are essential food sources for birds; the open fields also create habitat for small mammals that serve as food for larger birds of prey, snakes and other mammals. 

View looking up through the canopy of tall trees.
Atlantic White Cedar Atlantic white cedar at DE's Middleford North Preserve provide the sole caterpillar-stage food source for a population of the globally imperiled Hessel's hairstreak butterfly. © TNC

Reforestation at Middleford

In 2019, TNC reforested 22 acres of former agricultural lands at the Middleford North Preserve with 7,150 native trees and shrubs. This National Fish and Wildlife funded project aimed to increase and improve headwater forest habitat in the Nanticoke River watershed—improving water quality in the river's Gravelly Branch, and ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay. The area also provides new habitat for local wildlife and migratory birds.

The trees planted include a mix of shortleaf pine, southern red oak, blackjack oak, black oak, white oak, chestnut oak, mockernut hickory and persimmon as well as highbush and lowbush blueberries.

Funding for this project was provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF).

Explore Nature

Need more nature? Visit some of TNC's other preserves.

Find More Places We Protect

The Nature Conservancy owns nearly 1,500 preserves covering more than 2.5 million acres across all 50 states. These lands protect wildlife and natural systems, serve as living laboratories for innovative science and connect people to the natural world.

See the Complete Map