August 31, 2000

Rancher welcomes wildlife

By Barry Wilson

Ottawa bureau

COBDEN, Ont. -- On the hills and knolls that dot his eastern Ontario cattle farm, Bob Dobson puts his money where his mouth is. For years, the 57-year-old producer has been preaching the need for farmers and landowners to develop stewardship practices that create habitat for birds and wild animals.For 20 years, he has been practicing what he preaches, but with a practical twist.He makes sure that every bit of habitat he creates and every environment-improving move he makes benefits the farm.

Each year, he plants at least 500 trees and shrubs as wind breaks, nesting areas, fence rows, buffer strips and feeding areas. Berry bushes, cedar trees and hardwood as common as oak or as exotic as black walnut dot his farm where his 19th century ancestors once cleared trees. It has attracted birds such as the Hungarian partridge, which had never made a home at the farm. There are ducks, hawks and other birds that eat insects and mice.
"This is good," says Dobson.

Over the years, he has created ponds and dugouts that attract birds, as well as provide water for his 192-head breeding herd. At one time, the farm could barely provide water for a herd half that size."I think farmers, like most people, are genuinely interested in not seeing species disappear and if they can be part of that, great," said Dobson, who owns 250 acres and rents 250 acres 90 minutes west of Ottawa."But there has to be something in it for the farmer or he can't afford to do it."

It's why he is a fan of federal proposals for new species at risk legislation.As co-chair of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association environment committee, Dobson has been supporting the federal proposals because they emphasize voluntary habitat protection by landowners and offer compensation if a landowner's income is severely affected by protecting land used by an endangered animal or bird.He worries that environmentalist critics could convince Ottawa to make the law mandatory and more punitive before it passes through Parliament this winter.

"It has to be balanced and offer landowners something or it will not work."

This summer, the federal government for the first time has asked the CCA to administer a recovery program for the loggerhead shrike, a bird reduced in Ontario to an estimated 20 breeding pairs.

A place to call home

Dobson said he would be thrilled to find loggerhead shrikes nesting on his land. He figures he has created a perfect place for them. There is vegetation, spiky hawthorne trees and lots of mice. The loggerhead shrike, also called the butcher bird, feeds on mice by impaling them on hawthorne spikes or barbed wire.

"I'd love to have loggerhead shrikes here," he said. "I sure could do with less mice."

Of course, habitat creation is just a sideline for the fifth generation Ontario farmer whose ancestors bought and started to clear the land in 1857. He makes his living as a cow-calf operator, maintaining a breeding herd of mixed Simmental and red Angus heifers largely purchased from herds in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
These days, with prices high and demand strong, it is a good living.

But Dobson is in the business almost by accident. He bought the farm from his father in 1967 and moved into the business fulltime in 1973. For a dozen years, he had a cow-calf operation but in the mid-1980s, he moved out of the business. He set up a stocker-feeder operation and began to run a "halfway house for calves" -- where calves would be purchased, vaccinated, castrated and dehorned before being sold to a Chatham, Ont., feedlot.

"I think there is a real need for pre-conditioned calves on the market," he said. "In Ontario, we are behind in that regard."

But three years ago, he bought 100 bred heifers from Western Canada and then ran into trouble because it was a drought year and cattle producers were selling their herds for lack of feed.He kept the heifers, because he could not sell them at a profit.

"I was back into the cow-calf business and so far, it has been good." In comedy and farming, timing can be everything.

Meanwhile, he continues to plan future years of habitat restoration on his land. He said there is at least another decade of tree and shrub planting in store before he figures the land is fully compatible with his cattle operation and his desire to provide living space for various creatures. Twenty years ago, he started modestly by planting trees along fence lines, many of which had been cleared of trees by his father in the 1950s when larger machinery led farmers to cut down trees to create larger, more efficient fields.

"I felt then it was some help for cattle who could take shelter from the wind on a cold day, and a help to wildlife," he said. "I have always thought the two mixed well."

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