Restoration of Old Town Hill
The Trustees of Reservations has embarked on a restoration and improvement of grasslands on segments of Old Town Hill’s 531 acres in Newbury.
Photo by W. Jones
On a clear day, up on the grassy summit of Old Town Hill in Newbury, New England’s state lines dissolve and a procession of reference points materializes: steeples spiking above Newburyport, cottages dotting Plum Island, the woody ascent of Mount Agamenticus in Maine, the scattered puzzle pieces of New Hampshire’s Isles of Shoals. But beyond providing a natural viewing platform and a scenic reward for hikers traversing the surrounding three miles of trails, the field upon the 168-foot-high hilltop—also known as Watch Field—is treasured ground for coastal critters. Hummingbirds suckle wildflowers’ nectar. Raptors and owls feast on furtive voles. Songbirds eat seeds and insects.
“We don’t officially call it a wildlife sanctuary, but the hilltop really acts that way,” says Caleb Garone, habitat specialist for The Trustees of Reservations, the Massachusetts-based land conservation and historic preservation organization that acquired Old Town Hill in 1952 and stewards the property today.
That ecological importance is why The Trustees has embarked on a restoration and improvement of grasslands on segments of Old Town Hill’s 531 acres. The project, partially funded by $33,206 from the MassWildlife Habitat Management Grant Program, includes widening field margins, plucking up invasives, planting wildflowers, and making a uniquely vulnerable place more resilient. “We’re aiming for this to be a vibrant grassland habitat that supports the butterflies, the pollinators, the birds—all those species,” says Russ Hopping, The Trustees’ ecology program director. “It’s not just about their environmental importance; they’re part of the overall experience, and our visitors appreciate them while they’re here.”
For centuries, Old Town Hill—a patchwork of grassy uplands, forest, and salt marsh—was occupied by indigenous peoples before colonial settlers cleared land for sheep and cattle in the 1630s. With the recent history of urbanization and development in the Commonwealth, grasslands have become both rarer and more important. Last year, The Trustees completed a survey of fields and pastures in eastern Massachusetts, and Old Town Hill figured “very prominently,” says Hopping. “Species like the bobolink, a migratory songbird, are entirely dependent on these grasslands, and as the habitat declines elsewhere, their numbers decline overall.”
Without periodically trimming back the ever-encroaching plants on the perimeter, New England’s grasslands lose sizable acreage and revert to forest—a detriment to the nesting and migrating birds that breed and forage on the landscape. “The bigger the field, the more valuable it is as habitat,” Hopping says. “For some species, especially grassland birds, if the field gets too small, it’s no longer attractive to them; if they’re too close to the edge and to predators, they’ll abandon those fields.”
So once the late-winter muck dried up, The Trustees got to work, drawing on the ecology expertise within the organization and hiring contractors with strong track records in forestry and wildlife management. The project at Old Town Hill, slated to last through the end of June, involves removing and mulching trees and shrubs to widen the edges at Watch Field and Adams Pasture, reseeding parts of the property with native grasses, removing invasive and non-native plant species, and installing a kestrel nesting box. The grasslands property will remain open during the restoration, and the project is expected to be minimally disruptive to visitors. The most noticeable change, according to The Trustees, will be the sweet smells and colorful presence of newly planted native wildflowers.
Once completed, the project should benefit a host of species included under Massachusetts’ State Wildlife Action Plan, from bobolinks to American kestrels, short-eared owls to yellow-banded bumblebees—and the windfall might extend even more broadly. “We hope to see benefits to a suite of grassland birds and pollinators, all the way up the food web,” Garone says.
Next, plans are in the making to restore the salt marshes of Old Town Hill, wetlands that lie at the heart of the 25,000-acre Great Marsh stretching from the Merrimack River to Gloucester. It’s a high-marsh habitat that supports a range of marine life and threatened avian species, like the salt marsh sparrow, and buffers uplands from storm surges and the advance of the Atlantic. “It’s some of the most resilient marsh habitat to sea level rise,” Hopping says. “So it’s a great place to attempt to maintain, rather than try to maintain marsh that’s likely to become open water and mudflats.”