Back in December of 2007, I made the trip to the gently rolling hills of southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania for my annual deer hunt on the family farm. Since I moved north to the mountains of Clinton County, PA over three years ago I don't get back to the farm much. Each visit is special because I'm always overwhelmed with childhood memories of baling hay, feeding cows, driving tractors, hunting deer, and fishing in the stream…ah the stream!
As a youngster much of my free time (which is very little when you grow up on a dairy farm) was spent fishing, flipping rocks, catching crayfish, and looking for salamanders in and along Stewart's Run and a small, meandering tributary that flowed through my grandfather's farm. What a great way to be introduced to the outdoors. I didn't know it then, but each time a trout swallowed my bait in that little stream I was actually the one getting hooked on a love for all things outdoors.
So much has changed on the farm during the thirty-two years of my life. My grandparents are long gone now, but Dad keeps the farming tradition alive though much less intensively. The milk house now sits silently through long winters and hot summers. Cows no longer enter the barn for their evening meal and the chores are far fewer. Yes, tobacco still hangs in the shed, corn still grows in the fields and heifers graze in the pasture, but the days of intensive farming for the Rohrer family are now gone.
Of all the changes I know of on the farm, one of the biggest has been the stream itself. Back in 2002, when my wife Kathy and I lived in the little cottage along the stream, Dad decided to build stream bank fencing and plant trees with CBF's Farm Stewardship Program. Of course, since I just happened to work for CBF as a stream buffer specialist, I was a major influence with that decision!
So, that year we hired contractors to build 5,400' of fence, install three livestock crossings, and plant 575 trees and shrubs. The fence and crossing set up allow the livestock to cross the stream and drink in various locations, while at the same time it keeps them out of the majority of the riparian areas. This allowed the streambanks to revegetate and helped to keep the stream cleaner. When my grandfather still milked cows, the livestock had full access to the entire stream and the banks were severely eroded, the water was often muddy, and there was no fish or wildlife habitat at all. In total, 5,820' of streambanks have been restored and 5.3 acres of forested riparian buffer have been created.
Since I only get back to the area a few times a year, I don't always get time to check out the buffer that I had put so much care and effort into several years ago. This year as I was hunting I decided to take a leisurely stroll along the buffer to really see how it was faring. Although there were trees that didn't survive, I was so proud to see that there were many trees growing--quite a few of them were well above my six foot tall head. Some ash, maple, and tulip poplar stretched more than twelve feet above the ground. Dogwoods and viburnums were thriving as well, providing cover and berries for birds and other wildlife.
The thing that struck me the most was the numerous songbirds that were along the stream. A tremendous diversity of birds flitted about all around me as they grabbed seeds from the tall grass, landed on the growing trees, and swooped down to the water. Chickadees, tufted titmice, sparrows of all kinds, and more. The stream buffer has gone from a grazed area with little habitat to a birder's paradise in a very short time. Being a birder, I was thrilled.
As I walked and gazed over the pasture and farmstead, I was awed by the memories that flooded me…the big hill that we would ride our plastic and metal runner sleds on every winter, thinking nothing of running back up to the top and doing it all day long just as I'm sure my Dad did when he was young…the "deep hole"� as we have always called it, where every year the neighbors and Dad and I would gather during the dawn hours of April's opening day of trout season to try to hook those brown, rainbow, and brook trout, which were courtesy of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission…the old stone farmhouse built in the 1700's, where every day my grandmother would make grilled cheese sandwiches for my grandfather and I as we rested from the morning barn chores…bringing in new born calves from the meadow as their mother trailed along behind…baling hay in the sweltering 100 degree heat of August…harvesting corn in the much cooler days of November as a hint of old man winter blew into the air…and of course, those delicious dinners served by my grandmother as the family gathered around the coal stove on those snowy Christmas days. My simple buffer tour had stirred up so many memories from a 120 acre piece of ground!
As I neared the end of my walk, my mind gradually got back to the real task at hand--hunting deer! One year I filled my deer tag right there in the buffer (I was doing my part to ensure those new trees would survive) but my luck was not to be this year. I went back north that weekend without a deer but I took home something more valuable--new memories and the knowledge that the stream that hooked me so many years ago was healthier than it has been for several generations. As I left the farm that day, I realized that my career today with CBF has brought me full circle with my childhood of yesterday.
To learn more about streamside buffers in Pennsylvania, you can contact the Chesapeake Bay Foundation at 717-234-5550. If you live in Clinton, Centre, or Lycoming Counties, PA, you can contact the author directly at 570-295-6164.