4. Land Cover
Land cover and any change in coverage that has occurred over a six year period is summarized for the Irish Creek catchment using spatially continuous vector data representing the catchment during the spring of 2008 and 2014. This dataset was developed by the RVCA through heads-up digitization of 20cm DRAPE ortho-imagery at a 1:4000 scale and details the surrounding landscape using 10 land cover classes.
As shown in Table 9, the dominant land cover types in 2008 and 2014 were crop and pastureland along with woodland.
|Land Cover||2008||2014||Change - 2008 to 2014|
|Crop & Pasture||6420||40||6325||39||-95||-1|
From 2008 to 2014, there was an overall change of 195 hectares (from one land cover class to another). Most of the change is associated with crop and pastureland (i.e., previously cultivated areas/fallow fields) emerging as young woodland (i.e., regenerative and/or plantation) along with some smaller areas of woodland conversion to crop and pastureland (see Figure 50 for the location of the major changes).
Table 10 shows the type of land cover change that has taken place between land cover classes/types from 2008 to 2014. Overall, the net area of crop and pastureland change (loss) is small at 96 hectares relative to the remaining area of crop and pastureland in the catchment (as of 2014). Similarly, the net area of woodland change (gain) is also small at 80 hectares relative to the remaining area of woodland in the catchment (as of 2014), as is the change (gain) in the area of settlement (at 19 hectares) when compared to the remaining settlement (in 2014).
|Land Cover||Change - 2008 to 2014|
|Crop and Pasture to Wooded Area||125.4||64.2|
|Wooded Area to Crop and Pasture||35.3||18.1|
|Crop and Pasture to Settlement||12.9||6.6|
|Unevaluated Wetland to Crop and Pasture||8.3||4.3|
|Wooded Area to Settlement||5.8||3|
|Wooded Area to Unevaluated Wetland||4.5||2.3|
|Wooded Area to Aggregate Site||1.3||0.7|
|Crop and Pasture to Unevaluated Wetland||0.9||0.5|
|Unevaluated Wetland to Wooded Area||0.5||0.3|
In the Environment Canada Guideline (Third Edition) entitled “How Much Habitat Is Enough?” (hereafter referred to as the “Guideline”) the opening narrative under the Forest Habitat Guidelines section states that prior to European settlement, forest was the predominant habitat in the Mixedwood Plains ecozone. The remnants of this once vast forest now exist in a fragmented state in many areas (including the Rideau Valley watershed) with woodland patches of various sizes distributed across the settled landscape along with higher levels of forest cover associated with features such as the Frontenac Axis (within the on-Shield areas of the Rideau Lakes and Tay River subwatersheds). The forest legacy, in terms of the many types of wildlife species found, overall species richness, ecological functions provided and ecosystem complexity is still evident in the patches and regional forest matrices (found in the Middle Rideau subwatershed and elsewhere in the Rideau Valley watershed). These ecological features are in addition to other influences which forests have on water quality and stream hydrology including reducing soil erosion, producing oxygen, storing carbon along with many other ecological services that are essential not only for wildlife but for human well-being.
The Guideline also notes that forests provide a great many habitat niches that are in turn occupied by a great diversity of plant and animal species. They provide food, water and shelter for these species - whether they are breeding and resident locally or using forest cover to help them move across the landscape. This diversity of species includes many that are considered to be species at risk. Furthermore, from a wildlife perspective, there is increasing evidence that the total forest cover in a given area is a major predictor of the persistence and size of bird populations, and it is possible or perhaps likely that this pattern extends to other flora and fauna groups. The overall effect of a decrease in forest cover on birds in fragmented landscapes is that certain species disappear and many of the remaining ones become rare, or fail to reproduce, while species adapted to more open and successional habitats, as well as those that are more tolerant to human-induced disturbances in general, are able to persist and in some cases thrive. Species with specialized-habitat requirements are most likely to be adversely affected. The overall pattern of distribution of forest cover, the shape, area and juxtaposition of remaining forest patches and the quality of forest cover also play major roles in determining how valuable forests will be to wildlife and people alike.
The current science generally supports minimum forest habitat requirements between 30 and 50 percent, with some limited evidence that the upper limit may be even higher, depending on the organism/species phenomenon under investigation or land-use/resource management planning regime being considered/used.
As shown in Figure 51, 38 percent of the Irish Creek catchment contains 5522 hectares of upland forest and 624 hectares of lowland forest (treed swamps) versus the 34 percent of woodland cover in the Middle Rideau subwatershed. This is greater than the 30 percent of forest cover that is identified as the minimum threshold required to sustain forest birds according to the Guideline and which may only support less than one half of potential species richness and marginally healthy aquatic systems. When forest cover drops below 30 percent, forest birds tend to disappear as breeders across the landscape.
Figure 51 Woodland cover and forest interior (2014)
Woodland (Patch) Size
According to the Ministry of Natural Resources’ Natural Heritage Reference Manual (Second Edition), larger woodlands are more likely to contain a greater diversity of plant and animal species and communities than smaller woodlands and have a greater relative importance for mobile animal species such as forest birds.
Bigger forests often provide a different type of habitat. Many forest birds breed far more successfully in larger forests than they do in smaller woodlots and some rely heavily on forest interior conditions. Populations are often healthier in regions with more forest cover and where forest fragments are grouped closely together or connected by corridors of natural habitat. Small forests support small numbers of wildlife. Some species are “area-sensitive” and tend not to inhabit small woodlands, regardless of forest interior conditions. Fragmented habitat also isolates local populations, especially small mammals, amphibians and reptiles with limited mobility. This reduces the healthy mixing of genetic traits that helps populations survive over the long run (Conserving the Forest Interior. Ontario Extension Notes, 2000).
The Environment Canada Guideline also notes that for forest plants that do not disperse broadly or quickly, preservation of some relatively undisturbed large forest patches is needed to sustain them because of their restricted dispersal abilities and specialized habitat requirements and to ensure continued seed or propagation sources for restored or regenerating areas nearby.
The Natural Heritage Reference Manual continues by stating that a larger size also allows woodlands to support more resilient nutrient cycles and food webs and to be big enough to permit different and important successional stages to co-exist. Small, isolated woodlands are more susceptible to the effects of blowdown, drought, disease, insect infestations, and invasions by predators and non-indigenous plants. It is also known that the viability of woodland wildlife depends not only on the characteristics of the woodland in which they reside, but also on the characteristics of the surrounding landscape where the woodland is situated. Additionally, the percentage of forest cover in the surrounding landscape, the presence of ecological barriers such as roads, the ability of various species to cross the matrix surrounding the woodland and the proximity of adjacent habitats interact with woodland size in influencing the species assemblage within a woodland.
In the Irish Creek catchment (in 2014), 140 (35 percent) of the 393 woodland patches are very small, being less than one hectare in size. Another 199 (51 percent) of the woodland patches ranging from one to less than 20 hectares in size tend to be dominated by edge-tolerant bird species. The remaining 54 (14 percent of) woodland patches range between 20 and 550 hectares in size. Forty of these patches contain woodland between 20 and 100 hectares and may support a few area-sensitive species and some edge intolerant species, but will be dominated by edge tolerant species.
Conversely, fourteen (four percent) of the 393 woodland patches in the drainage area exceed the 100 plus hectare size needed to support most forest dependent, area sensitive birds and are large enough to support approximately 60 percent of edge-intolerant species. Seven patches top 200 hectares, which according to the Environment Canada Guideline will support 80 percent of edge-intolerant forest bird species (including most area sensitive species) that prefer interior forest habitat conditions.
Table 11 presents a comparison of woodland patch size in 2008 and 2014 along with any changes that have occurred over that time. An increase (of 80 ha) has been observed in the overall woodland patch area between the two reporting periods with most of the physical change in area occurring in the 50 to 100 and 100 to 200 hectare woodland patch size class ranges.
|Woodland Patch Size Range (ha)||Woodland* Patches||Patch Change|
|2008||2014||2008 to 2014|
|Less than 1||142||36||69||1||140||35||65||1||-2||-4|
|1 to 20||202||51||1038||17||199||51||1003||16||-3||-35|
|20 to 50||21||5||595||10||23||6||672||11||2||77|
|50 to 100||20||5||1407||23||17||4||1214||20||-3||-193|
|100 to 200||6||1||725||12||7||2||902||15||1||177|
|Greater than 200||7||2||2232||37||7||2||2290||37||58|
The forest interior is habitat deep within woodlands. It is a sheltered, secluded environment away from the influence of forest edges and open habitats. Some people call it the “core” or the “heart” of a woodland. The presence of forest interior is a good sign of woodland health, and is directly related to the woodland’s size and shape. Large woodlands with round or square outlines have the greatest amount of forest interior. Small, narrow woodlands may have no forest interior conditions at all. Forest interior habitat is a remnant natural environment, reminiscent of the extensive, continuous forests of the past. This increasingly rare forest habitat is now a refuge for certain forest-dependent wildlife; they simply must have it to survive and thrive in a fragmented forest landscape (Conserving the Forest Interior. Ontario Extension Notes, 2000).
The Natural Heritage Reference Manual states that woodland interior habitat is usually defined as habitat more than 100 metres from the edge of the woodland and provides for relative seclusion from outside influences along with a moister, more sheltered and productive forest habitat for certain area sensitive species. Woodlands with interior habitat have centres that are more clearly buffered against the edge effects of agricultural activities or more harmful urban activities than those without.
In the Irish Creek catchment (in 2014), the 393 woodland patches contain 190 forest interior patches (Figure 51) that occupy seven percent (1213 ha.) of the catchment land area (which is greater than the five percent of interior forest in the Middle Rideau Subwatershed). This is below the ten percent figure referred to in the Environment Canada Guideline that is considered to be the minimum threshold for supporting edge intolerant bird species and other forest dwelling species in the landscape.
Most patches (163) have less than 10 hectares of interior forest, 111 of which have small areas of interior forest habitat less than one hectare in size. The remaining 27 patches contain interior forest ranging between 11 and 177 hectares in area.
Between 2008 and 2014, there has been a notable change in the number of woodland patches containing smaller areas of interior habitat (Table 12) with an increase of 80 woodlands containing less than one hectare of interior forest over this period and 19 woodlands with one to 10 hectares of interior habitat. This has occurred as a result of the loss of interior forest habitat in the larger woodland patches in the catchment over this period.
|Woodland Interior Habitat Size Range (ha)||Woodland Interior||Interior Change|
|2008||2014||2008 to 2014|
|Less than 1||31||36||7||1||111||58||28||2||80||21|
|1 to 10||33||38||129||11||52||27||175||15||19||46|
|10 to 30||13||15||232||20||18||10||326||27||5||94|
|30 to 50||2||2||66||5||4||2||134||11||2||68|
|50 to 100||4||5||247||21||2||1||102||8||-2||-145|
|Greater than 100||3||4||490||42||3||2||448||37||-42|
Wetlands are habitats forming the interface between aquatic and terrestrial systems. They are among the most productive and biologically diverse habitats on the planet. By the 1980s, according to the Natural Heritage Reference Manual, 68 percent of the original wetlands south of the Precambrian Shield in Ontario had been lost through encroachment, land clearance, drainage and filling.
Wetlands perform a number of important ecological and hydrological functions and provide an array of social and economic benefits that society values. Maintaining wetland cover in a watershed provides many ecological, economic, hydrological and social benefits that are listed in the Reference Manual and which may include:
- contributing to the stabilization of shorelines and to the reduction of erosion damage through the mitigation of water flow and soil binding by plant roots
- mitigating surface water flow by storing water during periods of peak flow (such as spring snowmelt and heavy rainfall events) and releasing water during periods of low flow (this mitigation of water flow also contributes to a reduction of flood damage)
- contributing to an improved water quality through the trapping of sediments, the removal and/or retention of excess nutrients, the immobilization and/or degradation of contaminants and the removal of bacteria
- providing renewable harvesting of timber, fuel wood, fish, wildlife and wild rice
- contributing to a stable, long-term water supply in areas of groundwater recharge and discharge
- providing a high diversity of habitats that support a wide variety of plants and animals
- acting as “carbon sinks” making a significant contribution to carbon storage
- providing opportunities for recreation, education, research and tourism
Historically, the overall wetland coverage within the Great Lakes basin exceeded 10 percent, but there was significant variability among watersheds and jurisdictions, as stated in the Environment Canada Guideline. In the Rideau Valley Watershed, it has been estimated that pre-settlement wetland cover averaged 35 percent using information provided by Ducks Unlimited Canada (2010) versus the 21 percent of wetland cover existing in 2014 derived from DRAPE imagery analysis.
Using the same dataset, it is estimated that pre-settlement (historic) wetland cover averaged 32 percent in the Middle Rideau subwatershed versus the 27 percent of cover existing in 2014. This decline in wetland cover is also evident in the Irish Creek catchment (as seen in Figure 52) where there has been a two percent decrease in the area of wetland cover from pre-settlement times to the present (as summarized in Table 13).
While there has been a reported decrease in wetland cover in the Irish Creek catchment from pre-settlement times, the remaining wetland cover in 2014 remains above the ecological thresholds cited in the Environment Canada Guideline. Nonetheless, in order to maintain critical hydrological, ecological functions along with related recreational and economic benefits provided by these wetland habitats in the catchment, a “no net loss” of currently existing wetlands should be employed to ensure the continued provision of tangible benefits accruing from them for landowners and surrounding communities.
|Wetland Cover||Pre-settlement||2008||2014||Change - Historic to 2014|