Natural Cover in the Watershed

A field with bales of hay bordered by forest.

Five-part Series Highlighting the Top Stories of the Watershed Plan

We’re continuing our five-part series highlighting the top stories from the Watershed Plan. In the first phase of the Watershed Plan we describe the health of the Credit River Watershed today, and how it has changed from the 1950s. This article is our second story: Improving Natural Cover.

Our data shows natural cover, such as the amount and distribution of forests, wetlands and streams are not meeting all targets for healthy natural heritage systems.

Natural heritage systems provide habitat for wildlife and support biodiversity, while benefiting us by filtering the air we breathe and the water we drink. That’s why we’re working with our municipal partners, watershed landowners and residents to improve natural cover across the watershed and to help these habitats thrive.

Reflecting on the Changes of Natural Cover in the Credit River Watershed

Natural cover has changed a lot in the Credit River Watershed because of the change in land use. Before European colonization, the landscape was dominated by natural cover. As settlements expanded, these ecosystems were cleared first for agriculture and then later for urban uses.

Our data show that today:

  • 36 per cent of land has natural cover
  • 31 per cent is urban areas
  • 28 per cent is agricultural land use
  • Five per cent of land is open space like parks and schoolyards

Natural Cover Amounts Throughout the Credit River Watershed

The amount of natural cover varies across the Credit River Watershed and is impacted by land use.

Woodlands: Across the watershed we do not meet target for woodland cover. But there are many large and well-connected woodland patches, which means we meet the target for a number of large woodland patches. These large woodland patches are mostly found in the Greenbelt, Oak Ridges Moraine and Credit Valley Conservation’s conservation areas.

Wetlands: In the northern areas of the watershed, the target for wetland cover is being met. In the near-urban areas we’re seeing wetland cover close to the target while in the urban areas, impervious surfaces like roads, parking lots and buildings make a greater proportion of land cover. 

Streams: Across the watershed, we’re seeing less natural cover next to streams than is needed to cool the water and trap pollutants.

Impacts of Natural Cover Decline and Land Use Changes

A small bird perched on a stick in a grassy field.
A ruby-crowned kinglet bird perched on a stick looking out over the grassy field.

We monitor forest plants and birds, wetland plants and frogs, stream fish and aquatic insects in these areas to better understand the impacts of these changes. Their abundance and diversity help us understand ecosystem health and where we can improve.

Our data show that declines in natural cover compared to pre-settlement times lead to lower species diversity. This affects an ecosystem’s ability to withstand pressures such as extreme weather and pollution. We’re also seeing a higher proportion of species that can live in conditions with more disturbance, such as openings in the canopy, light and noise pollution.

Working Together, We’re Increasing Natural Cover

A group of people posing in a wooded area. One person is holding a shovel next to a small tree.
CVC volunteers joining us during a community tree planting event.

Through our network of conservation areas, programs and resources, we’re facilitating change to improve natural cover conditions across the watershed. This includes planting trees, restoring habitats and removing invasive species.

From 1955 to today, we’ve worked with our municipal partners and private landowners to plant over seven million trees . This covers 3,500 hectares – an area roughly ten times the size of the Toronto Islands!

The Co-benefits of Natural Cover

A boardwalk through a wetland bordered by forest.
A birds-eye view of Rattray Marsh boardwalk.

When we improve the health and connect natural areas, we protect functions and important for the health and well-being of both people and the environment.

Continued investment in stewardship and restoration to improve environmental health helps to mitigate against climate change, improve air and stream quality, and create places where we will all want to live, work and play.

How to Get Involved!

By Shanice Badior, Coordinator, Watershed Plans and Analytics and Kata Bavrlic, Program Manager, Watershed Plans and Analytics.

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