Harwich Earns Community Wildlife Habitat Certification

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Conservation

A butterfly enjoys a snack in a pollinator garden in North Harwich last summer.  FILE PHOTO

Effort Led By Garden Club Of Harwich

HARWICH — There’s plenty of desirable real estate in Harwich, even for wildlife.

The town has been officially designated as a Community Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation, making it the first on the Cape and only the second in Massachusetts to earn that recognition. The designation acknowledges that the town and its people have created multiple habitat areas in backyards, schoolyards, commercial properties, community gardens, farms, parkland and conservation lands.

“It’s taken us two-and-a-half years, but we’re very proud of doing it,” said Sharon Oudemool, a member of the Garden Club of Harwich’s conservation committee. The club was the driving force behind the certification effort, which was supported by town government and the Harwich Conservation Trust. With communities facing the loss of wildlife habitat to development, organizers say the designation helps Harwich serve as a model for other communities seeking to allow people and wildlife to flourish together.

The club’s conservation subcommittee began exploring the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife program in 2017, when Oudemool saw an article about the city of Houston, Texas, obtaining its Community Wildlife Habitat designation. To earn certification, communities need to earn a certain number of points based on population and various other factors. To obtain enough points, applicants have to demonstrate a concerted effort to educate the community about conservation and ecological protections and have to recruit a certain number of families as participants. In Harwich, more than 100 families joined the effort, Oudemool said.

“They had to send $20 to the National Wildlife Federation, and they were given a certificate after they signed off on a certain number of things that they had to pledge to do,” she said. “You don’t use pesticides, of course. You try to find an alternative to pesticides.” This pledge is particularly important on Cape Cod, where virtually all drinking water comes from the aquifer and any contaminants put into the ground ultimately reach waterways or drinking water wells.

For the same reason, participants had to pledge to reduce their use of fertilizers, which can contribute to nitrogen loading in ponds and waterways. When fertilizer is needed, it should be organic and slow-releasing, Oudemool said.

But participants also had to work to improve the wildlife habitat on their own lands.

“It’s about leaving places in your property where animals can nest and hide,” Oudemool said. And that includes providing food sources, but not necessarily with bird feeders. “It means that you are planting native flowers, shrubs and trees that our wildlife need to survive,” she said. A master gardener, Oudemool said there are a variety of native species that serve this purpose.

“We’re seeing that nurseries are beginning to offer many more native plants,” she said. “In our outreach to the public, we’re trying to make those differences known.”

More challenging is the pledge to provide a year-round water supply for wildlife, usually in the form of a birdbath or water feature equipped with a heater “so it’s always there for the animals,” she said. Garden supply stores have many options available, Oudemool noted.

The club was glad to have support from the town’s board of selectmen and the conservation department.

“This is another great example of how the citizens of the town, the Harwich Conservation Trust, and the town of Harwich can all work together on a common goal, which benefits our residents as well as our wildlife and their habitat,” Conservation Administrator Amy Usowski said.

“With its proactive leadership and now national recognition, the Garden Club of Harwich is creating positive change across the community,” Harwich Conservation Trust Executive Director Michael Lach said. “We all benefit from their goal of encouraging wildlife-friendly landscapes that are vibrant with native plants, use less water, and attract birds, butterflies and other pollinators.”

For more information, visit www.GardenClubOfHarwich.org.