Stewardship Oxford is doing its part to help bring back the monarch butterfly.
Five butterfly habitats have been established in Tillsonburg through their Butterfly Habitat Rehabilitation Project. The most recent, located at the Tillsonburg Cemetery on Simcoe Street near the railroad tracks, was completed last week with labour and expertise provided by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry's Stewardship Youth Ranger Program.
"Stewardship Oxford is a group - a council - that does a lot of reforestation projects and wetland development, basically rehabilitating land," said Tillsonburg's Esmeralda Carvalho, a member of Stewardship Oxford. "We do a lot of work with landowners."
The Oxford County stewardship has been around many years, she said, but few people in Tillsonburg are aware of it.
"I joined the group about two years ago, and I proposed this project. They said yes because 'we haven't done anything in Tillsonburg, it's a great idea, and it's very different.' It's rehabilitating land in an effort to bring back the monarch butterfly population. That is the main focus, but it's also for other butterflies as well."
Monarch butterflies, which have seen a decrease in population over the past 20 years, are currently listed as a Species of Special Concern in Ontario.
"Seeing a monarch today, here, it's almost like an event. 'Wow,'" said Carvalho. "We want to bring them back, and I think this is a very good location because we're right next to Tillsonburg Garden Gate. Butterflies will go there, but as people buy the plants they lose their food sources and they can always come here. And hopefully they're going to start laying their eggs here."
The most important element in a butterfly habitat is milkweed, which was removed from Ontario's noxious weed list in 2014.
"It has become imperative that this plant is brought back," said Carvalho. "What we're trying to do is raise awareness that milkweed needs to be seen as important plant, and people need to try to conserve it, plant it, and take care of it. And if they don't want it, they should give it to us."
Monarch butterflies require milkweed as a food source as they develop from larva into caterpillars.
"To create a butterfly habitat, it's very important that we plant 'host plants' for the caterpillars. Often people just think about the pretty flowers for the butterflies, but without the host plants, butterflies won't lay their eggs. They need to lay their eggs on plants that are going to feed the caterpillar - and this is why it's called a habitat and not a garden. Because we are making sure we are planting host plants.
"The idea is to take land that is not being used - it doesn't need to be mowed - and we're making sure that we get a lot of milkweed in, as it's the primary plant the monarch caterpillar eats - it's the only plant that the monarch caterpillar eats."
There are more than 140 known milkweed species, and three of them were planted at the Simcoe Street butterfly habitat.
"We have the common milkweed, the one you see most often anywhere," said Carvalho. "We have the butterfly milkweed and swamp milkweed. Those kinds are native to this land."
Other butterflies require different host plants, so they also introduced coneflower, wild bergamot, and herbs.
"A lot of the butterflies host on herbs, like sage and dill."
A similar habitat was established near Lake Lisgar in a higher profile area. Signs will be installed at each habitat - Simcoe Street, Lake Lisgar, Annandale PS, and Glendale HS.
"I think it was just announced yesterday (July 19) that we got a generous grant from the World Wildlife Foundation for $5,000... for this particular butterfly habitat project in Tillsonburg, for this year," said Carvalho. "So we were able to buy the plants we need and all the materials that we need. We're also going to do a brochure. We're doing lawn signs and we're doing a website. And we're going to do some education in the schools."
Long Point Region Conservation Authority's brochure will be adapted by Stewardship Oxford to include their sponsors, including WWF.
"Tillsonburg Garden Gate is also supporting us - they've given us some plants, and they're giving us a big discount on some plants that we are buying."
Other supporters include Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and Tillsonburg's TVDSB schools.
"And we're working with the Tillsonburg Horticultural Society with their Junior Gardeners program as well. What we've done is created a package - a butterfly seed kit - and we included that with their normal yearly package. Kids signed up for it, and this year - I don't know if it was adding the butterfly kit with it - double the kids signed up. We had 260 kids sign up for it and I'd like to think it was the butterfly idea. I just think the idea of butterflies excites children."
Milkweed was included with each package.
"Milkweed is a really, really vital seed. It's not that easy to grow, but once it takes off, it takes off. But it's not that easy."
Another sponsor is Tillsonburg Parks and Rec, said Carvalho.
"We're working directly with Rick Cox (Tillsonburg's Director of Recreation, Culture and Parks). Rick has identified plots of land where he wouldn't mind us building these habitats. The habitat next to Lake Lisgar is kind of a 'showy' one - we want the public to see it - we want them to get excited about it."
The cemetery butterfly habitat, located next to the tracks, is a long term project. The initial 25-50 foot habitat will likely extend south over the next few years, she said, possibly with the addition of a small pond.
"There is no significant source of water here, like Lake Lisgar."
Some plants were grown by Glendale High School and Annandale Public School students, and the two schools also created their own butterfly habitats.
"We have assigned stewards there so they can look after them through the summer. They're not too big... the kids can handle watering them.
"This is actually our fifth butterfly habitat because the Tillsonburg Retirement Residence also wanted to do one. So with our support and collaboration, they've done one there. It's small, but it's something that shows interest."
She hopes to see that interest sparked, not just in Tillsonburg, but everywhere.
"It's exciting for me," said Carvalho. "I think it's exciting for everyone. And I think as people learn about this, they're going to want to create their own habitats. When you see a monarch, it just warms you're heart - they're beautiful."