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Heavy lifting done for McNeill Bay bluff restoration

Lead volunteer wants Garry oaks, berries for birds and indefinite shoreline maintenance
Local biologist and Community Association of Oak Bay member Jacques Sirois hammers a fresh sign into the earth at the McNeill Bay bluff on May 13, informing passersby of the various native plant species being maintained. Sirois said the “heavy lifting” of restoration efforts at the bluff, which started in September 2019, is already over. (Evert Lindquist/News Staff)

As the sun shines atop the now-cleared McNeill Bay bluff, local biologist and restoration volunteer Jacques Sirois says the “heavy lifting” is already over and maintenance of this section of the Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary has begun.

Sirois returned to the bluff Friday to admire the quick work he and fellow Community Association of Oak Bay member Leo Gauthier have made since commencing their restoration of the area in September 2019.

Together, they have cleared truckloads of invasive English ivy, Himalayan blackberry, daphne and English hawthorn in a district-sponsored project inspired by the United Nations Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. And now, having gotten through the thick of their invasive species removal by March despite initially aiming to finish restoration work there by 2031, Sirois and Gauthier are well ahead of schedule.

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“It’s the ‘just do it’ technique,” Sirois explained, pointing out the “resilient” June plum, “extremely tough” Pacific crabapple and “blooming” Saskatoons to his right.

“It’s a regime change for them, a completely new set of circumstances,” he said of the Saskatoons, which now stand free from the once-encroaching ivy and blackberry.

“They removed a massive amount of ivy,” said Wylie Thomas, a local biologist and vice-president of the Friends of Uplands Park Society.

“It’s a phenomenal amount of work,” he said, adding it was a wonder people could even see the Scouler’s willows at Kitty Islet previously.

“The trees were just draped in ivy.”

To heighten restoration efforts, Sirois and Gauthier also cleared space for a soil bed the size of two cars to plant fresh Garry oaks and camas. Despite older camas already existing there in abundance, the newer ones have turned out to be a favourite snack for deer.

“We didn’t want to plant too many things,” Sirois reseasoned. “We just want the vegetation to grow.”

He said they also uncovered Oregon grape beneath the hoards of ivy. Other native trees and shrubs along the bluff and Kitty Islet shoreline include black hawthorn, Nootka rose and common snowberry, although Sirois said the latter two started to dominate and have needed to be controlled.

“We gave Mother Nature a chance to grow, and we let it happen.”

He said the goal with maintaining the bluff is to generate a good source of berries for birds. The cleared spaces aren’t intended for human use and pedestrians are encouraged to keep to the sidewalk and make use of the public space at Kitty Islet.

“That’s the beauty of this whole place,” said Sirois, a frequent visitor to Kitty Islet himself.

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Chris Hyde-Lay, parks services manager for Oak Bay Parks, Recreation and Culture, called the restoration work a “wonderful step in the right direction.”

He commended the “phenomenal” progress at the bluff under Sirois’s “tutelage” for helping “rewire” the land.

Whenever needed, the district sent a truck to haul out the masses of invasive brush Sirois and Gauthier cleared each week.

“I couldn’t tell you how many dump-truck loads of plants (were removed),” Hyde-Lay remarked.

Sirois plans to maintain the bluff himself “indefinitely,” at least for the next few years. After that, however, it may be up to a new generation to carry on the work and legacy.

“Hopefully there’ll be a caretaker coming along,” he said.


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