Nova Scotia

Farmers offered financial carrot to help save threatened wood turtle

The Nova Scotia program aims to limit the number of wood turtles badly injured or killed by farm machinery, especially in hayfields, by providing a financial incentive to farmers to change their mowing practices.

New program aims to preserve reptile in Nova Scotia

There are an estimated 2,000 to 8,000 wood turtles in Nova Scotia. (Richard Lafleur)

Farmers are the focus of a new Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture program to protect the wood turtle, which is about to wake from its winter hibernation and head for dry land for something to eat.

The initiative aims to limit the number of the reptiles that are badly injured or killed by farm machinery, especially in hayfields, by providing a financial incentive to farmers to change where and how they mow.

Project co-ordinator Simon Greenland-Smith told CBC's Information Morning that the species is in trouble.

"They are listed provincially and federally as a threatened species, which means they're really at risk of becoming extinct. They're declining throughout the province."

Fewer than 8,000

There are between 2,000 and 8,000 wood turtles in Nova Scotia, according to the latest estimate.

Some of the larger population "pockets" are in rivers that run into Cape Breton's Bras d'Or Lake, areas such as Queensville, Kingsville and River Denys.

On the Nova Scotia mainland, the Annapolis, St. Marys and Musquodoboit watersheds are among the most populated habitats for the wood turtle.

The species has a brown shell that is grooved so that it looks like it's carved out of wood, and its legs, neck and tail are a kind of orange colour, said Greenland-Smith.

"When they come out of their rivers in the spring they're looking for food sources. So they'll be looking for worms, slugs and berries in the spring to eat. And that's where they come into contact with tractors and mowing equipment," he said.

The wood turtle often makes its way into hayfields after its winter hibernation to feed on worms, slugs and berries. (Brittany Crossman)

Greenland-Smith outlined a couple of ways farmers can benefit from signing a "stewardship agreement" with the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture.

One is to agree to refrain from haying on land close to a river where the turtles are known to live. In return, the farmer will receive financial compensation.

"Farmers are able to take that money and maybe reinvest in other parts of the farm so that they can reach their production goals while also meeting their goals for preserving wildlife," said Greenland-Smith.

Another option is to raise their mower blades when they cut hay.

"The height of a turtle is about 10 centimetres, so if farmers raise to 15 centimetres that will hopefully clear the turtle and really reduce the risk of hitting and killing wood turtles," said Greenland-Smith.

Farmers eligible for up to $15K

There is payment for this as well on a per hectare basis, he said, noting the program is funded by Environment and Climate Change Canada, and administered by the federation of agriculture. 

Any farm that qualifies for funding is eligible for up to $15,000 from the program, which is called Wood Turtle Strides.

Greenland-Smith said he is working now on proposals with a couple of farmers on the mainland. He hopes to schedule some farm visits in Cape Breton so he can go there in about two weeks. 

With files from Cape Breton's Information Morning