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Otter River Farms in the News

Tillsonburg News, Aug. 2010 ~~ London Free Press, June 2010 ~~ Aylmer Express, Sept. 24, 2010


The following article appeared in the Tillsonburg News in August 2010. The writer was Jeff Helsden.

Doug Dennis receives award from Carolinian Canada
Doug receiving Carolinian Canada Conservation Award with Tom Bird
An Elgin County property owner is looking to share the knowledge of forestry that earned him an award. Doug Dennis, who lives in Bayham west of Vienna, received the Carolinian Canadian Conservation Award for the work he has done on his 700 acres. He was nominated by Tom Bird, a friend and an original weatherman on London"s CFPL TV.

photo of Doug Dennis with award
Photo of Doug Dennis with award
Photo by Jeff Helsden
Called Otter River Farms, much of the 700 acres is along the Big Otter Creek. Two-thirds of the property is in wood lots. The property is pretty, rolling country, full of ravines and contains several streams that run into Otter Creek. Dennis believes those ravines have helped protect many of the older trees on the property from logging over past decades.

Dennis has been a long-time advocate of forest management but really stepped up efforts in the last few years.

He installed four ponds to create habitat for fish, turtles and frogs, while a snake habitat was built adjacent to the ponds.

"When I was a young lad, I used to see a lot of snakes," he said. "You don't see that many anymore."

Another pond is still to come. Dennis also worked on erosion control, which is critical in the sandy soil, and planted trees. He manages his own woodlots and strives to create wildlife habitat.

The property is home to several endangered species, including the Acadian flycatcher. There are only 40 pairs of these birds in Canada.

" They like the deep ravines," Dennis said. "They're a very private bird."

A farm near Straffordville has a badger den. Throughout his property, endangered hooded warblers and flying squirrels are found. Dennis also allowed his property to be used for the wild turkey reintroduction.

Now, he wants to showcase his property, offering guided tours by ATV. The tours would be targeted at those interested in eco-tourism, but also to other woodlot owners.

"My main objective is to try and encourage good forest management and to encourage farmers to look after their forests," he said. "We've been mismanaging for a long, long time."

Typically, Dennis said most farmers hire a logging company to mark their woodlots and cut trees. He doesn't believe this is the most effective method, saying a better method is to take the worst trees out and leave the full, bigger trees to grow.

Dennis marks his own trees, managing for a combination of aesthetics, forest products, wildlife value and recreation. He is 67 but often cuts the trees. The trees are removed from the bush with as low an impact as possible and typically sold to Townsend Lumber. Friend Steve Timmermans helps with woodlot management sometimes.

photo of Doug Dennis measuring girth of Black Walnut tree
Newly retired from a career with Sun Life, Dennis hopes to establish a value-added company to deal with wood products down the road.

"This is my passion, I've been doing it for years," he said. "I'm not a golfer. If I have spare time, I'm out in the woodlot."

Being "out in the woodlot" includes other outdoor activities. Dennis makes maple syrup in the spring and hunts deer on his property with friends in the fall.

Dennis is upfront, admitting he is fortunate to have what he calls a prize piece or property. Besides encouraging woodlot management, he hopes by sharing it through tours it will get more people – and especially children – interested in hiking, forests, fishing and hunting. Tours would highlight some of his larger trees, including a 50-inch black walnut Dennis figures could have been planted more than 150 years ago.

Dennis is originally from the Straffordville area and went to school in Tillsonburg. He purchased his first farm on McQuiggan Line, in the area that was unofficially termed McQuigganville by early settlers, in 1969. Over the years he has gradually added more land to his holdings.

He learned about forest management through friends and being members of the Elgin-Middlesex Woodlot Association—of which he is a past-president and still a director—the Ontario Forestry Association and the Ontario Woodlot Owners Association.

The 1830 house he lives in was originally a part of McQuigganville. In the basement, there are timbers without the bark peeled off. The house overlooks a barn that's more than 100 years ols and a scenic vista of the rolling fields leading down to the Otter.

Dennis' daughter Christine lives near by and is a renowned herbalist. She takes advantage of the many native plants on the family property for the practice.

Now that he is retired, Dennis hopes to get his wife Sandi involved in the operation.

Article ID# 2682487

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  The following article appeared in the Business Monday section of the London Free Press on June 25, 2010: A Shepherd of the Trees

A shepherd of the trees

COVER STORY: Douglas Dennis has spent decades assembling large tracts of Carolinian forest near Port Burwell
By PAT CURRIE, Special to QMI Agency

Totally ignoring Thomas "You Can't Go Home Again" Wolfe, Douglas Dennis not only went home again, but he bought the place. Now he wants other folks to come and see what he has done.

Over the past 41 years, Dennis has bought 22 hectares of Carolinian forest from his father's estate -- land that has been in his family for six generations. He's also picked up eight nearby farms in eastern Elgin County's Bayham Township along Big Otter Creek about five kilometres northwest of Port Burwell and an hour's drive southeast of London.

It's a neighbourhood of mixed farm and woodlands Dennis roamed as a boy before he went off to London to sell insurance. Thirty-seven years later, he's retired and the master and dedicated caretaker of 283 hectares (700 acres), about two-thirds of it clothed in towering Carolinian forest.

He's opening the forest to "guided tours, by appointment only, for people who are genuinely interested in conservation and learning about the Carolinian forest, to educate individuals on forest management, nature conservation, and wildlife management," he says. The forest is in two blocks. One is about 160 hectares and the second is about 120 hectares.

Dennis's home is an 1830-era brick structure (with several new additions) that in pioneer times was home to one of several families of McQuiggans, so many in fact that the locality was known as McQuigganville.

Dennis calls his spread Otter River Farms, justifying promoting the creek to river status "because there used to be barge traffic on it in pioneer times."

Dennis bought his first farm in 1969 "when tobacco was king and tobacco farmers wanted flat fields and not all these hills and gullies." Twenty years later, tobacco farms were failing and going cheap.

In one case, he put in a bid of $25,000 on a foreclosed property "and I was surprised as hell when my bid won."

The former tobacco fields he planted with several varieties of pine (which thrives in sandy loam) but always Dennis had his eyes on the Carolinian forest woodlots with their black walnuts, beeches, maples, oaks and other hardwoods.

Southern Ontario's Carolinian forest of majestic hardwoods is unique in Canada and home to some unique wildlife. The forest once dominated the landscape south of a line from Grand Bend to Toronto, but after two centuries of exploitation and neglect, its scattered remnants -- only about 20% of the original forest -- are among the most endangered eco-systems in the country.

Re-enter Douglas Dennis. Drive by more than mere nostalgia and a desire for quiet retirement "in an area I really love," Dennis returned with ideas of protecting and nurturing the forest and growing forestry knowledge and skills—much of it self-learned—in how to do it.

Lord of the Rings fans could easily name him an Honourary Ent after the mythical "shepherds of the trees" created by fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien, who could have had Dennis's woods in mind in his description of the living forests of Middle Earth.

There's a difference, though. Unequipped with superhuman powers, Dennis is a shepherd of the trees who wields a chain saw and rides a large tractor equipped with a powerful winch. He does so because selective timber cutting not only thins out the sickliest trees, clearing space for healthier trees to thrive, but also provides the financial underpinning that supports his conservative efforts.

"That's a $20,000 tree right there," he says, nodding at a black cherry tree as thick and straight as the mainmast on HMS Victory. The trunk shoots up, without a branch, some 20 metres (about 70 feet) before the circular canopy explodes outward. It would make ideal knot-free veneer for a furniture.

Using his tractor and winch to haul logs up steep slopes, Dennis already harvests his trees for wood processed by neighbour and partner Steve Timmerman and sold to a local company.

Dennis hopes to establish his own drying kilns and mill in partnership with Timmerman and son-in-law Lawrence Abro, a mechanical engineer who lives in British Columbia.

While he's waiting for that to happen, Dennis's immediate plan is to offer guided tours along a network of trails through his woods.

Bouncing along a forest trail on one of his pair of 4x4 RVs, he points out rare trees such as the tulip tree, once the king of the Carolinian forest at heights of 50 metres (165 feet). He notes one site "where the federal government is keeping track of a pair of Acadian flycatchers. It's one of the rarest birds in Canada, where there are only 40 pairs known."

A deer bounds off the trail. "There are about 200 of them here," Dennis says, adding that a rare badger has been spotted on his other block of property.

"I have eight different creeks here," he says, pausing beside one of the many forest trails that wind around and through a complex of steep-sided ravines and gentler gullies gushing with clear streamlets.

Gaps in the tree canopy afford surprising viewpoints out over the steep slopes and far-away fields flanking the marches and ponds studding the floodplain along Big Otter Creek where its course winds and loops east for five kilometres to the "blink of an eye" village of Vienna (pop. 556 or so) before swinging south for another four kilometres to empty into Lake Erie at Port Burwell.

It's on the floodplain that he has created three man-made ponds, one of which has become a favourite swimming hole for his grandchildren.

"My next project is to make another pond for painted turtles and a habitat for snakes. I like snakes," he says.

"There aren't any poisonous snakes here, but one of my ancestors, Joe Soper, who died at age 101 some 20 years ago, told me that he saw Mississauga rattlers around here when he was a kid," Dennis recalls.

"In fact, to most farmers a woodlot was not important. My desire from the beginning was to improve my woodlots and I immediately started to reforest side hills and swamp areas that were used for pasturing," he explains.

Dennis embarked on a steep learning curve. He joined the Ontario Forest Association, the Ontario Woodlot Owners Association, and the Elgin-Middlesex Woodlot Association, of which he is a past president.

He also was helped by a couple of forester friends.

Dennis will say only that he has invested "a decent amount of money into these properties" and still watches for opportunities to buy "but with inflation they become more and more expensive."

"I bought one of the largest properties because of the timber, which is primarily mature red and white oak, and white pine. It also includes red, white and scotch pine plantations. I feel quite satisfied with what I have but am always open to purchasing an adjoining property."

"Now that I retired from Sunlife at age 67, I find I am working in my woodlots all year round," he says.

The time has been well spent. In May (2010), Dennis received a conservancy award for the careful management of his woodlands from Carolinian Canada, a non-profit coalition of more than 40 government and non-government conservation groups and many individuals.

"He's always in the bush," says daughter Christine.

Christine is a medical herbalist who has a master of science degree from the University of Wales in the United Kingdom. She's one of only four people in North America to earn what's reputed to be the world's highest qualification for herbal medicine. Christine makes as much use of the plants in the woods as her father makes of the trees.

She has planted two large herb gardens for her own use and, in the forest, has reintroduced such endangered species as goldenseal, "a natural antibiotic."

She also teaches "wildcrafting"— using the natural forest for beneficial plants— and home-schools her three children aged 13, 12 and seven.

"This farm is their classroom," she says. "They're the luckiest kids in Canada."

Forest (sidebar)

The Carolinian forest extends from the Carolinas in the United States to its northern limit in Southwestern Ontario. Home of 40& of Canada's rare plants, 80& of its former extent has been destroyed and the rest is under pressure. Its current stronghold is in the Port Burwell area.

Once home to great groves of chestnuts—long since killed off by blight—the forest is home to various species of ash, birch, chestnut, hickory, oak, and walnut. Tallest of all is the tulip tree, often reaching 25 to 30 metres (80 to 100 feet).

Wildlife includes deer, raccoons, possums and the relatively rare southern flying squirrel, as well as such endangered birds as Acadian Flycatchers and Hooded Warblers.

Pat Currie is a London writer.


On September 24, 2010 the Aylmer Express newspaper published the following story on Doug Dennis and Otter River Farms. Rob Perry is the writer

Otter River Farms to open its Carolinian forests to tourists

Otter River Farms of McQuiggan Line in South Bayham, saluted with a Conservation Award in 2009 by Carolinian Canada for efforts to preserve native woodlots, will open its doors to eco-tourists, overnight guests and campers as early as this autumn.

Those woodlots stretch over two miles of Otter Creek, and make up about two-thirds of their 400-acre home farm.

Owner Doug Dennis and wife Sandi are converting a former rental house on their property into a guest house. Mr. Dennis said for those with more rustic requirements, rough cabins and even campsites would be available. Overnight and day visitors will be able to tour the woodlots along miles of groomed trails, they said, on foot, by mountain bicycle or possibly on a guided all-terrain vehicle.

They want to educate tourists about the importance of woodlots, and allow those who have never had the opportunity before to experience the peace and grandeur that nature afforded in the steep gullies of the Otter River Valley in Bayham.

The visitors would also help finance maintenance of the woodlots, he said. Such natural properties had to be carefully managed to keep them financially viable.

While he preserves natural species, he also cultivates them to ensure that, when the time comes, trees can be harvested for valuable lumber.

He opposed "diameter cutting," where farmers cut trees as soon as they reached a certain girth. The larger a tree grew, as long as it was healthy, the more valuable its lumber became, he said. And big trees added to the majesty of the woodlots.

His woodlots had a vast variety of tree species, he said, including sycamores, which had a tendency to become hollow, and that pioneers used for shelters while building their homes.

Others include ash, black cherry, red and white oak, hemlock, beech, black walnut, white pine, tulip, sassafras, cucumber (tree), black gum and soft and hard maple.

Mr. Dennis's family stretches back for generations in Bayham. Some were United Empire Loyalists who came to Canada following the U.S.A.'s Revolutionary War. Others were Talbot settlers. He bought his 400-acre home farm on McQuiggan Line in 1969 and, along with other properties that came through his family and that he purchased, he has a total of 700 acres, most in south Bayham and the rest east of Straffordville.

He always bought properties with woodlots, which most farmers found undesirable, he said, so he got them at a good price.He sharecrops his fields with Underhill Farms, but he's always looked after the woodlots himself. Mr. Dennis spent 35 years working for Sun Life, before his retirement at the end of last year.

Now, he wants to dedicate his time to developing his farm as an eco-tourism attraction, and pass on some of his own love for the outdoors.

He first learned that love from his father Jesse but, more especially, from his grandfather Alba. "Right from square one," he recalled, his grandfather would take him out into the woods, and teach him about the plants and wildlife that resided there.

They hunted, fished and camped, but always responsibly, he said, doing the least harm possible to the environment and always eating whatever they caught, and never killing just for sport.

Even as a young man, he said, he had a vision of someday opening their farm's woodlots to visitors. "It's different back here," he said of the gullies of Bayham. " It turns wild. "It's some of the wildest country left in Southwestern Ontario."

For birdwatchers, his farm is home to a rare species, the Acadian Flycatcher. Only 40 pairs of the birds were known to exist in Canada.

Now was a great time to start such an eco-tourism business, he said, given recent tourist developments in this area, especially the new museum for the submarine HMCS Ojibwa in Port Burwell.

Overnight guests at his farm could spend time in the woodlots and also visit other nearby attractions, such as that museum and the beach.

Mrs. Dennis said they also hoped to attract school tours.

"Get them while they’re young" and infect them with a love of the outdoors, she said.

Mr. Dennis said the tours, by appointment only, would be primarily educational in nature, and not about tearing about the countryside on ATVs.

Mr. Dennis said the farm featured five ponds, including one he just completed as a habitat for turtles.

Some of the trails would be a "good physical workout" going up and down the sides of gullies, but others were easier to manage.

Winter tours could be done on skis or snowshoes, or even snowmobiles, he said.

Antique farm machinery was spotted around the property, as were 23 outbuildings, all dating back to before 1900.

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