At the HPWA there are a variety of managed and unmanaged ecotones. Eight different habitats are managed on the property.
Agriculture and urbanization are the two main influences on the southern Ontario landscape that have promoted the loss of approximately 80% of the region's wetlands. In some portions of Huron County wetland losses have been higher. This outright loss, combined with the impairment of the ecological function of the remnant wetland base, prompts wetland restoration and enhancement projects such as the Hullett Provincial Wildlife Area. These negative impacts paired with the opportunity to enhance the area for waterfowl habitat provided the motivation for the development of the HPWA in the 1960s. In 1979 OMNR signed a 99-year agreement with DU Canada to design, construct and maintain the wetland habitat at Hullett. Work was implemented in several phases between 1979 and 1991 with the majority of the wetland habitats completed by 1983. The total wetland area in the HPWA is approximately 706 Ha of which the dominant habitat type is marsh (450 Ha). These marsh habitats were established utilizing the insitu aquatic plant seed bank that was present prior to the development of the project. Water level management is an important component of maintaining wetland habitat quality and mimicking natural wetland dynamics.
The watercourses in the HPWA consist of the South Maitland River, headwaters and springs and a number of drainage ditches. The flooded impoundments receive water from natural drainage on the site as well as several of the drainage ditches. The south Maitland flows through the property and does not contribute water to the impoundments. The South Maitland is a warm water tributary of the Maitland River, and contains a fish population dominated by smallmouth bass, forage species include members of the minnow, catfish, and sucker families. Migrating trout and salmon have also been reported in the river. The river provides habitat for ducks, turtles, muskrats, and a variety of other aquatic species, by providing cover and travel routes.
The agricultural lands consist of approximately 850 ac of fields ranging from 1.5 to over 60 acres in size. These fields are well distributed throughout the property and play an important role in providing cover, nesting habitat and food to wildlife. The main crops cultivated are corn, beans, small grains and hay. The use of the land is contracted to a farming operator every 5 years through a competitive bidding process. The contract specifies the percentages of the field areas that are to be cultivated by crop type. In the past, there have been controls on the percentage of the crop harvested and left standing, the use of flushing bars on equipment, field crop rotations, and on the timing of harvesting operations.
Agricultural crops provide abundant food sources for deer, waterfowl, and other wildlife. A diverse mixture of crops provides an important feed source through most of the year. Spring feed is available from the winter wheat and hay fields. Summer feed is available from wheat, hay and bean fields. Fall feed is available from corn, hay and winter wheat fields. Hay crops, with their restrictive cutting dates, are managed specifically to provide high-quality nesting cover for waterfowl. Corn also provides cover to wildlife such as deer during the summer and fall months.
At the time Hullett was purchased, the agricultural land base consisted of woodlots, as well as fields used for pasture, hay and crop fields. Most of the pasture and hay fields and some of the lower quality crop fields were abandoned, either at the time of, or a short period before the area was established, and they have advanced into various stages of old field succession. These fields now consist of open grasslands, shrublands and early successional forest. Many of the fallow fields have been strip mowed over the years in an attempt to revert succession to the grassland stage.
Patches of native grassland were once prevalent across southern Ontario within the once fire-dependent landscape. With the conversion of this historically forested and grassland landscape to one dominated by agriculture, few native grassland habitats remain. In an effort to maintain the habitat diversity within the HPWA and provide robust grassland habitat for upland nesting waterfowl and other grassland-dependent wildlife, 12 Ha of native grasslands were planted in 1999. These plantings were strategically located adjacent to wetland habitats and in areas appropriate in topography, soil type and moisture regime. Subsequent to the successful establishment of these grasslands, future management will include occasional prescribed burns or mowing to maintain grassland quality.
Native grasses provide a cost-effective, sustainable, open meadow habitat type to complement the existing habitat diversity of the HPWA. These native grasses provide robust residual cover that is resistant to snow compaction and thus provides important cover during the early spring period. The habitat provided during the summer and fall periods is of critical importance to many species of wildlife for breeding, foraging and cover. These species are representative of the fire-dependent grassland habitats that historically evolved within the forested southern Ontario landscape. Remnant grasslands elsewhere in the area surrounding HPWA are of limited extent.
The creation of the HPWA and the multitude of productive marsh and swamp wetland habitats currently found throughout the property were developed in part through the construction of a series of 8 independent wetland basins. This type of design was quite different from the conventional "reservoir" mentality of the day. The infrastructure required to implement this project consisted of a series of earthen dykes constructed at elevations designed to impound desirable water levels and restrict excessive flooding associated with the south Maitland river and flooding events. Subsequent to the installation of water control structures and construction, the dyke tops were seeded with a tame grass/legume mixture to stabilize the bare soils. The dyke tops provide valuable wildlife habitat for species associated with this grass upland area and are generally quite productive due to their proximity to wetland habitat. The edges of the dyke provide foraging habitat for wetland-dependent amphibian species and nesting habitat for waterfowl and other ground-nesting birds. Mammalian species utilize the dyke tops as foraging habitat and as travel corridors between habitat types.
The upland forest cover on the site consists primarily of mixed woodlots of sugar maple, beech, white ash, black cherry, and basswood. There are also
several stands of hemlock, birch and eastern white cedar which occur on sites varying in wetness. The total coverage of mature woodlot is 580 acres. Upland woodlots are important environments for most terrestrial wildlife. In Huron County, land clearing since settlement times has reduced upland forest cover to less than 10% of the land base ( total forest cover including swamps is about 18%). Forest birds are commonly used as indicators of the quality of a forest because their habitat requirements have been well researched, and they are easily surveyed. Forest bird species will increase in number to at least 35% forest cover (at a scale of at least 10,000Ha) A 200 Ha forest patch has been shown to support over 80% of expected bird species on the landscape. Some bird species avoid forest edges and require up to 200 m of forest interior to successfully reproduce.
Game species that utilize upland forest at Hullett include white-tailed deer, raccoons, squirrels, cottontail rabbits, ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, coyotes and red fox. Specialized habitats for these species would include den trees and deer wintering areas.
Hedgerows function in several different capacities. They connect woodlots and allow travel corridors for wildlife. They provide interspersion of habitat types, reduce field size and provide more "edge" habitat where wildlife like to feed. As well, the coniferous hedgerows provide excellent winter cover for some wildlife and the deciduous hedgerows provide buds and berries for food.
The planting of hedgerows at Hullett began in the late 1970s and continued through the early 1980s. The tops of larger conifers have been cut in order to keep them from growing too tall and some cutting has occurred to prevent the rows from spreading out too wide. Unfortunately, one of the species planted was autumn olive which has proven to be highly invasive. Future management will have to address the concerns of the spread of the autumn olive, like this one seen in the photo above (pale leaf plant).