Introducing the Rice Lake Plains

Welcome to the Rice Lake Plains and the world of habitat conservation in Canada's easternmost prairie landscape! The Rice Lake Plains of Northumberland County is known for its historical tallgrass prairie and oak savannah habitats, cloaking the Oak Ridges Moraine, which itself is part of Ontario's protected Greenbelt. This website will be an ongoing source of information on tallgrass prairie and savanna conservation in the area. It is a place to profile landowners and habitat projects and a way to get the word out about local tours, workshops, events and activities.

The website is brought to you by the Rice Lake Plains Joint Initiative - a partnership of local people, conservation groups and government agencies, all of whom share a vision: a landscape of protected, restored and sustainably managed tallgrass prairie and oak savanna ecosystems amid well-stewarded farmland, forest, wetland and riparian habitats of the Rice Lake Plains region. We are committed to being good neighbours in the community and to actively caring for our lands as a contribution towards a sustainable future.

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History of Tall Grass Prairies and Rice Lake Plains

The Rice Lake Plains, one of the most intriguing areas on the Oak Ridges Moraine, is an area of roughly 100,000 acres (40,469 hectares) located at the eastern end of the moraine, southeast of Peterborough. Historically, The Rice Lake Plains were covered with tall grass prairies and oak savanna, dominated by massive Black and White Oak, where grasses like Big Bluestem, Indian Grass and Switchgrass grew more than two metres high and a diverse range of wildflowers blossomed. Today, the oak savanna and tall grass prairie of the Rice Lake Plains are badly fragmented and overgrown with non-native species.

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Rice Lake Plains Joint Initiative - Memorandum of Understanding.

In 2002, in its mission to preserve and restore the globally rare ecosystem of the Rice lake Plains, Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) proposed that the most practical way of promoting the long-term sustainability of this area of approximately 400,000 ha would be to involve a number of partners in the area.

The partners, Alderville First Nation, the County of Northumberland, Ganaraska Region Conservation Authority, Lower Trent Region Conservation Authority, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, Northumberland Land Trust and Ontario Parks, collectively known as "the Parties", agreed to sign a Memorandum of Understanding whereby:

Each Party recognizes that Rice Lake Plains is part of the Oak Ridges Moraine, an environmentally significant part of Ontario, particularly important as a ground water re-charge area with significant forest and headwater habitats and with globally rare tallgrass communities including prairies, savannas, barrens and oak woodlands which have become increasingly fragmented and otherwise threatened.

Each Party believes that efforts to promote the long-term sustainability of Rice Lake Plains will best be achieved through coordinated activities minimizing duplication of effort, maximizing sharing of information and, where possible, resources, and focusing on common themes and mutually agreeable priorities.

The approximate boundaries are shown on the map.

Click map for a larger version

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This MOU is in effect since 2007 with the expectation that the Parties will continue to work together to achieve the long-term objectives some of which are:

  • Pursuing a common vision for the preservation and enhancement of the natural features of Rice Lake Plains among the Parties and other agencies.
  • Increasing awareness and understanding by the general public, landowners and others on the importance of the natural features of the Rice lake Plains and how people can have a positive effect on these features and functions.
  • Increased scientific research, data collection and distribution, and sharing of expertise.
  • Improved information flow to municipal and provincial planning processes.
  • Looking to and sustainably using the well-established Alderville First Nation Black Oak Savanna and the Red Cloud Cemetery Prairie as models for partner activities in site restoration.
  • Increased opportunities and securement of key sites within the Rice Lake Plains.

Meetings of the Parties are organized every three months by NCC, the "lead Party" in this Initiative. These meetings are for the exchange of information, to enable parties to plan strategy, coordinate efforts and assess results. In addition the meetings may facilitate improved, enhanced and, where appropriate, coordinated fund-raising for conservation efforts in the Rice Lake Plains. There is a provision in the MOU for other Parties to attend meetings and to join the Initiative.

From Inspiration to Restoration: report on the first six years of the Rice Lake Plains Joint Initiative

The dry rolling hills of the Rice Lake Plains, at the eastern end of the Oak Ridges Moraine in Central Ontario, were historically a 17,000 ha – 30,000 ha (42,500 acres -74,000 acres) tallgrass prairie landscape.

Fire suppression, conifer plantations and, increasingly, invasive species, have changed and degraded the now globally rare black oak savanna and other significant tallgrass habitats of this region. The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) began investing in conservation of the Rice Lake Plains in 2001, with the goals of protecting and restoring multi-property tracts of tallgrass prairie communities.

Inspired by the active tallgrass prairie management of the Alderville First Nation Black Oak Savanna and the Red Cloud Cemetery Prairie, NCC forged the multi-partner Rice Lake Plains Joint Initiative in 2002 to raise awareness and to collaboratively work on a landscape-scale to restore tallgrass habitats.

Oak Ridges Moraine - Click for a larger version

A Natural Area Conservation Plan was created, which helped prioritize and guide initial land purchase and identify areas of high priority for management, restoration and landowner contact. Through this partnership, over 3,000 ha (7,413 acres) have been evaluated, 536 ha (1,324 acres) have been secured, and over 150 ha (370 acres) have been restored using prescribed burns. Private landowners are learning about the ecological communities on their land and what they can do to protect and maintain tallgrass prairie communities.  There have been challenges, as partners and the local community respond, adapt and rise to the possibilities and realities of tallgrass restoration. To date the partnership has grown to seven groups and momentum continues to build to help revitalize this globally rare ecosystem.
Todd Farrell and Mark Stabb Nature Conservancy of Canada, Uxbridge, Ontario

Natural Heritage of the Rice Lake Plains
To understand why the Rice Lake Plains area is so significant, not only at the local level, but at a truly global level, one must reflect back on the ecological history of this area. The ecosystems we have here today are a product of the last glacial movement that occurred 13,000 years ago. As the climate warmed and the glaciers retreated, the ice divided into two lobes, forming a distinct crack.  It was in this crack that giant accumulations of till, stratified silt, sand and gravel were deposited, creating a contiguous ridge of 160 km from the Niagara Escarpment to the southern shores of Rice Lake. This ridge is known as the Oak Ridges Moraine (ORM) and is recognized as a provincially significant physiographic feature, up to 200 meters thick and 300 meters above Lake Ontario; providing clean groundwater for over 60 streams and rivers, which in turn is used by more than 200, 000 people.

The ORM is one of the last contiguous corridors of greenspace left in southern Ontario and is approximately 30% forested today.  But due to the sandy soil characteristic it has also been an excellent environment for tall grass prairie and savanna communities. It is a myth that Ontario’s wilderness is all about trees. While it is true that Ontario’s ecology is primarily dominated by forests, historical accounts from early settlers tell the story of tall grass prairie and black oak savanna, which are particularly characteristic of the Rice Lake Plains area of Northumberland County, an area located on the eastern boundary of the ORM. Records from early botanical explorations and land surveyors have documented the range of prairie and savanna.

One pioneer in particular, Catharine Parr Trail, a noted Canadian botanist and writer, lived in and wrote extensively about the Rice Lake Plains. Her love of this area we call home is evident in her many writings and she was in awe of its natural beauty.

Rice Lake Plains’ Unique Communities and Species

To understand the global significance of the ecosystems found in the Rice Lake Plains, we will first explain a little bit about global ranking.  Ranks are assigned to species and ecological communities to help identify and direct conservation priorities. Ranks are evaluated and assigned at Global (assigned by consensus of Conservation Data Centers across the globe), National (consensus from Conservation Data Centers and “NatureServe”) and Provincial (MNR’s Natural Heritage Information Center, S Ranks) levels.  All ranks are assigned within similar criteria such as total number known, sites world-wide, degree to which species or community is threatened, level of protection (if any), size of populations, etc. The Global ranking system assigns the following designation: G1 = extremely rare, G2 = very rare, G3 = rare to uncommon. Provincial ranking systems are S1 = critically imperiled, S2 = imperiled, S3 = vulnerable, S4 = apparently secure, S5 = secure.

In the Rice Lake Plains, there are some significant high-quality black oak savanna and tall grass prairie remnants. Savannas are generally defined as 25-35% tree cover and tall grass prairie as less than 25% tree cover.  Black oak savannas are globally imperiled and have a G2 ranking order; provincially they are ranked as S1.  Therefore, both of these communities are considered to be among the most significant ecological communities in North America and in fact globally rare, some say even more so than the rainforests.  As a result, many of the floral and faunal species which depend on these communities for their survival are considered rare or endangered.

Rice Lake

Photo by
Janine McLeod




Photo by W.J. Crowley

In the Rice Lake Plains, the Alderville Black Oak Savanna represents the largest and most significant remnant of this community; it is complimented by smaller fragments found in Peter’s Woods/Burnley-Carmel, the Northumberland Forest and other nearby Nature Conservancy of Canada lands and Ganaraska and Lower Trent CA lands.  Floral species found in these remnant pockets include Butterfly weed, Tall Cinquefoil, Big Bluestem Grass, Little Bluestem Grass, Indian Grass, Sand Cherry, Black Oak and Wild Lupine. Faunal species like the Eastern hog-nosed Snake (provincially threatened), red shouldered hawk, grasshopper sparrow, black swallow tail butterfly and ghost tiger beetle are also inhabitants of these communities.   

Butterfly Milkweed

The key to maintaining a sustainable community is to have connections among natural areas to keep fragments from becoming small and disconnected islands. This approach is identified in the Ontario’s Biodiversity Strategy, Protecting What Sustains Us: “All species and populations in isolation accomplish little. It's only when they are linked that things begin to happen and ecosystems begin to work.” The RLPJI is one wonderful example of inter agency partnerships working to achieve that!

Mia Frankl, Forestry Management Officer, Northumberland County

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