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Robert Perkins won’t take all the credit for the wetland he built on his three-and-a-half-hectare property just outside Fall River, N.S.
“I’ll get myself in trouble,” he said with a chuckle. “Between the beavers and I, we built it.”
Perkins started creating the wildlife refuge on his land in the early 2000s. The beavers got wind of it about nine years ago.
Perkins calls it his “oasis in the middle of an urban jungle,” and it’s now home to herons, snapping turtles, otters and many other water-loving creatures.
“I just seen a better way to do it,” he said. “When we build our subdivisions we clear all the trees, we dry the hills, drive all the water down to the lakes, all the pollution … The beavers hold it back, filter it.”
Today, the constructed wetland includes about eight ponds of different sizes, connected to one another and surrounded by vegetation.
But for Perkins, creating habitat for wildlife in his suburban community is not only about doing his part to help the environment. It’s a labour of love for a woman he met when he was 16 years old.
Her name was Rhonda. Perkins didn’t want to use her full name to protect her family’s privacy.
It was a day in 1974 when the two teenagers met for the first time on a sidewalk in Sackville. They connected immediately, and shared a love of animals and the outdoors.
One day, Perkins told Rhonda about his idea to some day build a little place in the woods, and before long she was dreaming of it too.
“She looked at me and said, ‘A little place in the woods, some place private, some place where no one will bother us … a place we can live with all the animals.'”
Perkins never forgot that, even years later when the two of them were no longer together.
So in 2000, he bought the piece of land behind his house and got to work, clearing some of the trees and using an excavator to dig deep ponds that he filled with water.
“Being an avid fisherman — I’ve fished brooks with beavers and stuff in it — I said, I’m going to build it and everybody said you can’t do that. What do you mean I can’t do that? I can do anything I want.”
When he first started, Perkins admits he got into trouble with provincial and municipal officials who he says were worried about the volume of water on his land.
Jonathan Platts with Ducks Unlimited Canada works with landowners who want to build wetlands from scratch, as Perkins has done.
“Constructed wetlands, starting them from scratch, and doing them right, I think you can still have very productive wetlands and ones that can certainly compliment your property and help wildlife,” said Platts, who lives on P.E.I. and is the new head of wetland restoration for Ducks Unlimited in Atlantic Canada.
He said these constructed spaces are especially important to help replace natural wetlands that have been destroyed by development.
Still, Platts advises anyone who wants to do something similar in their own backyard to start by getting the necessary permits from the province and municipality where they live.
After that, constructing a thriving wetland begins with having the right kind of soil and understanding the slope of the land. Underlying soil that has a lot of clay in it will act as a natural liner to hold water.
“You know that your constructed wetland is working the way it should be when you see the wildlife show up and stick around through the season,” said Platts, who estimates he’s helped build about 170 wetlands on P.E.I. in his 14-year career.
According to the latest survey from 2004, Nova Scotia has some 360,000 hectares of freshwater wetlands and 17,000 hectares of salt marshes. Globally, it’s estimated about 40 per cent of all wildlife relies on wetlands, and they’ve become an important nature-based solution to deal with climate change.
Even so, Mimi O’Handley with the Ecology Action Centre said wetlands are sometimes misunderstood, and seen as an inconvenience by people who want to develop the land.
“You don’t really need to explain to a lot of people why rivers and lakes are important, but wetlands, the public awareness isn’t as strong in that area,” said O’Handley, the centre’s wetlands and water coordinator.
“The destruction of wetlands is definitely a huge threat to them.”
Perkins hopes his project will one day become an educational place that Nova Scotians can visit to learn about the importance of wetlands.
But sadly, Rhonda never got to see the little place in the woods that was built for her. It’s part of the reason why Perkins can’t abandon the project.
Rhonda had a difficult life and a painful childhood, Perkins said. She died by suicide in 2006.
But he said he doesn’t need to wonder what she’d think of the place — he feels her presence there everyday.
“Is it painful? Sometimes,” said Perkins. “But I couldn’t walk away from her … If I’m here, she’s here.”