Chapel Hill's Mason Farm: 'A wild place'

Mar. 16, 2014 @ 09:25 PM

Near the Finley Golf Course on several hundred acres of undeveloped land, there’s evidence of bear, bobcats, coyotes and hundreds of different species of plants.

“It is a wild place,” said Johnny Randall, director of conservation programs for the N.C. Botanical Gardens, speaking Sunday to about 40 people gathered to hear about the history and future of the Mason Farm Biological Reserve.

Accessed by permit only, the forests and meadows in the reserve are just part of the lands under the control of the N.C. Botanical Gardens.

Randall spoke about the Mason Farm reserve in particular because 2014 marks 30 years since the original 367 acres of land was set aside for research. Another 118 acres was added in 2012.

The original land was donated to the University of Chapel Hill by one of the descendants of the first European settler of Orange County, Randall said, who started farming in the county in the mid-18th century.

Although that first settler, Mark Morgan, was the first Orange County settler from Europe, Randall said, life in the area pre-dated him by thousands of years.

Randall said that 18,000 years ago, plant species grew that could “very well” be some of the same plants found in the area today.

The flowering rhododendron, he said, have grown here since the glaciers retreated 12,000 years ago.

And there were American Indian settlements in the area for more than 10,000 years, according to an article he wrote for the gardens’ newsletter. Pottery and arrowheads have been found on the land, he said.

Using images from the early 18th century, Randall said there was a much more open landscape in the area.

“The Piedmont was an open landscape,” he said.

Aerial images of the reserve and surrounding land showed how farmland and forest surrounded the tract, and the encroaching urbanization. However, he said the reserve is connected to about 600 acres of contiguous undeveloped land.

He said the future plan for the reserve includes protecting the natural environment and also rehabilitating it. He described programs to collect and plant native seeds, and to replant native plants along roads elsewhere in the preserve.

Another project involved the release into the reserve land of 100 bobwhite quail birds, which he said used to be common at Mason Farm. The last sighting of the tagged birds was 10 months after their release, he said.

“Bobwhites do need a large landscape,” he said, adding that their disappearance is unexplained, and could have been due to predation or other factors. “Maybe the landscape is not large enough.”

Randall also said there are two more large tracts of land that officials want to get under “some form of conservation.” He added that soon there’s expected to be careful logging done in part of the reserve to create more open terrain. He said creating that landscape may also help retain species such as the quail.