O'Neill property, ON (Photo by NCC)

O'Neill property, ON (Photo by NCC)

Neighbour of nature reserve donates rare ecosystem land

March 4, 2022
Cobourg, ON


Less than 2 per cent of tallgrass prairie ecosystems remain in Ontario

Over the last decade, Cobourg resident John O’Neill has watched the rare tall grass prairies at the Hazel Bird Nature Reserve grow to support some of the scarcest species in central Ontario. He’s even helped plant native species on the protected land. Now, O’Neill has taken his generosity to another level by donating his own 40-hectare property to expand the neighbouring nature reserve.

This new addition expands the Hazel Bird Nature Reserve by one-third, from 116 hectares to 156 hectares.

O’Neill’s donated land is like a decade-old time capsule, revealing a stark before-and-after of how far restoration efforts have taken Hazel Bird Nature Reserve since the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) began managing the area in 2011. Where invasive shrubs and Scots pine still clutter the newly acquired land, NCC has been removing those species from the nature reserve in order to foster the native tall grass prairies and savannah ecosystems emblematic of the Rice Lake Plains.

Native grasses and wildflowers, replanted by volunteers like O’Neill and fostered by prescribed burns, now offer habitat to species like monarch butterfly (special concern), grasshopper sparrow (special concern), eastern whip-poor-will (threatened) and eastern meadowlark (threatened).

Soon, with restoration work and the help of volunteers like O’Neill, those species will be able to root, grow, nest and thrive on the newly acquired land. NCC’s efforts to clear away the Scots pine that have taken over the Oak Ridges Moraine on the O’Neill property will reveal a wide-ranging view of Rice Lake, to the north.

NCC plans to expand the trail network from the Hazel Bird Nature Reserve onto the O’Neill property, so that visitors can witness the restoration work and take in the view of Rice Lake.

NCC looks forward to continuing to learn more about the property and celebrating this incredible conservation achievement with donors, partners, supporters and the local community in the future.

This project showcases how NCC is accelerating the pace of conservation in Canada. In the past two years alone, NCC has influenced the protection of more than 1 million hectares (almost twice the size of Prince Edward Island), coast to coast to coast. Over the next few years, the organization will double its impact by mobilizing Canadians and delivering permanent, large-scale conservation.

In the face of rapid biodiversity loss and climate change, nature is our ally. There is no solution to either without nature conservation. When nature thrives, we all thrive.


“When my partner Colin Jones and I bought this property in 1996, we did not understand the ecosystem in the area. After talking with local and provincial naturalists, we came to appreciate that the ecosystem on our land was very special and also very rare in southern Ontario. We observed first-hand how this rare ecosystem was threatened. We agreed that we should somehow find a way to preserve it and protect it from development. When the Hazel Bird Nature Reserve was created on our southern border, we were delighted, and the idea of donating the land to the NCC was born.” – John O’Neill, land donor

“The goodwill and eagerness that John O’Neill has shown with his generosity speaks to how responsible conservation can make a difference in all our lives. The Hazel Bird Nature Reserve was created with a great amount of local support, and John’s donation entrenches that legacy. When it comes to ecosystems like Ontario’s rare tall grass prairie, every hectare protected and restored can make a huge difference.” – Mark Stabb, Nature Conservancy of Canada program director for Central Ontario

“Ontario is proud to invest in this project as part of the Greenlands Conservation Partnership, which is helping to protect important natural areas, like tallgrass prairies, as well as the many species that depend on them. I want to thank Mr. O’Neill for his incredible generosity and also recognize the tremendous work the Nature Conservation of Canada is doing to conserve more greenspaces here in Ontario and nationwide.” – David Piccini, Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks

“The twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss are two sides of the same coin, and we must tackle both together. By working with partners such as the Nature Conservancy of Canada and landowners such as John O’Neill, we are helping to protect the natural environment in Ontario, and build a healthier and more resilient future for our children and grandchildren. Programs like the Ecological Gifts Program and the Nature Smart Climate Solutions Fund are helping us progress toward conserving a quarter of lands and oceans in Canada by 2025 and 30 percent by 2030, and fight climate change.” – The Honourable Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Environment and Climate Change


Hazel Bird Nature Reserve is within the traditional territory of the Mississauga Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee Peoples. For millennia, they have worked to protect these landscapes and the life these areas sustain. With gratitude and respect, NCC acknowledges the significant, ongoing role of Indigenous Peoples on these lands and looks forward to working together to ensure these natural lands can continue to support the people with whom they are intertwined.

This land conservation project was made possible thanks to the generosity of John O’Neill. The project was funded in part by the Ontario government, through the Greenlands Conservation Partnership.

The land donation was enabled by the Government of Canada’s Ecological Gifts Program. This program provides enhanced tax incentives for individuals or corporations who donate ecologically significant land.

This project was undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada through the federal Department of Environment and Climate Change.


  • The protected land falls within the Rice Lake Plains Natural Area, which boasts some of the largest tracts of kame moraine forest, tall grass prairie and savannah ecosystems in Ontario, including globally significant black oak savannah. Only two per cent of prairie and savannah ecosystems in Ontario remain today.
  • The Rice Lake Plains cover an area of 40,470 hectares and are located at the eastern end of the Oak Ridges Moraine, southeast of Peterborough.
  • Historically, the Rice Lake Plains were covered with tall grass prairies and oak savannah, dominated by massive black and white oak. Today, the oak savannah and tall grass prairie of the Rice Lake Plains are badly fragmented and overgrown with non-native species.


The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) is the country’s unifying force for nature. NCC seeks solutions to the twin crises of rapid biodiversity loss and climate change through large-scale, permanent land conservation. As a trusted partner NCC works with people, communities, businesses and government to protect and care for our country’s most important natural areas. Since 1962, NCC has brought Canadians together to conserve and restore more than 15 million hectares.


Find photos here: https://adobe.ly/3svODTI

Learn More
Follow us on Twitter:  twitter.com/NCC_CNC  |  twitter.com/NCC_CNCMedia
Find us on Facebook

- 30 -

Media Contact:

Tara King
Communications Director, Ontario
C: 416-937-5079

Jensen Edwards
National Media Relations Manager
Mobile: (438) 885-9157

Supporter Spotlight

Small Acts of Conservation - Take the challenge and enter to WIN

Get our newsletter!

Sign up now
Funding provided by Environment and Climate Change Canada