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Federal program helps Nova Scotia farmers protect dwindling wood turtle population

Farmers can get up to $15,000 over five years to help protect wood turtles and their habitat.
Farmers can get up to $15,000 over five years to help protect wood turtles and their habitat.

Some farmers in Nova Scotia are taking advantage of a new program that helps them reduce the dangers agricultural operations pose to the endangered wood turtle.

There are only an estimated 2,000 to 8,000 of the turtles in Nova Scotia, and the numbers are dropping. Part of the threat is the fact they make a lot of use of farmland, says Mhari Lamarque.

Lamarque is the manager of Wood Turtle Strides, a program funded through a federal initiative that focuses on working with farmers to support species at risk and their critical habitat on farms.

The program is run through the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture.

Farmers can get up to $15,000 over five years. Going into the second year of the program, about two dozen farmers have taken advantage of the funding to make improvements to their farms to try to keep any turtles nearby safe.

“We would like to work with anyone interested in conserving and protecting wood turtles,” she said. “The biggest risks to wood turtles on agricultural land, however, exists around haying and the use of haying and tractor equipment along fields, along the rivers.”

She said that’s where the focus has been, but they have also done cost-share work for fencing to keep cattle out of the river and river banks to protect the habitat and nests.

She said having 23 farmers sign up in the first year of the program “is great. We’ve been able to distribute all the funds we’ve had access to, and have actually had to ask people to come back for the next funding cycle. There definitely is interest in the program.”

She said there are compliance checks yearly to make sure that farms are doing what they received the funding for, but she believes everyone who has applied is genuinely interested in helping the turtles.

“Every farmer that I’ve talked to, who has seen them and knows that they’re there, already cared about them. Most farmers, if they see a turtle while they’re mowing, will get out of the tractor and pick it up and move it to the side.”

Wood turtles like medium-sized rivers, where they overwinter, and venture into adjacent fields and woods to forage during the warmer months. They nest along the riverbank.

“Compared to other reptiles they can travel quite far, and that exposes them to one of their other risks, which is crossing roads.”

The wood turtles look for food like worms and berries, which can draw them into the fields. Wood turtles may also find sandy and gravelly areas that are good for nesting and laying their eggs.

The turtles are already threatened by predation by other animals, and farm operations are just one more danger, she said.

The program is waiting to hear how much funding is available for this year, “but we can definitely field calls and get in contact when we know about the funding.”

They can also offer tips on how to make farms more turtle-friendly even without funding in place, including expanding buffer areas between fields and rivers, raising mower blade heights and so on.

Information on the program and tips are available here.

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