Highland Farm Preserve, York County

An Old Farm Welcomes Wildlife and People

This scenic old farm almost got turned into a 37-house subdivision. Today Highland Farm Preserve is a wildlife paradise with its old fields and pastures, young forest, rock outcroppings, and vernal ponds. Conservationists are cutting down trees and planting shrubs to help New England cottontails – which means that lots of other wildlife benefit, too. Take a walk on the New England Cottontail Trail, or learn more here . . . .

Helping Cottontails

The 151-acre preserve came into being in 2009 with the purchase of 91 acres by the York Land Trust and 60 acres by the Kittery Water District. Biologists have found New England cottontail sign on Highland Farm within the last five years, and the property is only a mile from another area where the rabbits now live.

Conservationists look out over New England cottontail habitat at Highland Farm

Conservationists look out over freshly made cottontail habitat./C. Fergus

Conservationists looked long and hard at the property in deciding how best to help cottontails and other wildlife that share bunny habitat. In September 2010, loggers clearcut 18 acres of woods on the preserve’s cottontail management unit. This harvest of middle-aged trees yielded wood products that returned around $6,000. The trees' root systems are now sprouting back, sending up a dense young forest of oak, maple, birch, and aspen. Cottontails will find this thick habitat to their liking (rabbits shelter in and feed on young hardwoods in winter), as will a host of other wild animals including American woodcock, ruffed grouse, Eastern towhees, chestnut-sided warblers, and black racers (a type of snake). Wild turkey hens will nest in thick areas. Turtles and amphibians that breed in Highland Farm’s vernal ponds will find plenty of invertebrates to feed on, including insects, in the regenerating brushy woodland.

Using logs and branches, workers built brushpiles to provide escape and winter cover for cottontails and other small mammals. A brontosaurus (not a dinosaur, but a tracked machine with a high-powered cutting head) “browsed” back many small trees that were not part of the commercial timber harvest.

Wood turtles also use rabbit habitat

Wood turtles need the dense plant growth provided by good cottontail habitat./J. Mays

Conservationists will plant native shrubs in parts of Highland Farm’s grassy field areas and around rock outcrops: native dogwood, elderberry, nannyberry, bayberry, and Virginia rose in the fields; and highbush blueberry, staghorn sumac, black chokeberry, American hazelnut, and juniper in the rocky zones. They’ll also plant shrubs along a small stream drainage that cuts through about 10 acres of old fields. The drainage, which includes some naturally growing alder (a native shrub), will become a 40-foot-wide habitat corridor linking Highland Farm to shrub swamps along the York River where rabbits currently live. That way, cottontails can move from one area to the other when looking for mates or dispersing as young.

Old Fields Great for Wildlife

Ten acres of old fields next to the cottontail management unit will be kept in grasses and herbaceous plants; they will be mowed in late summer after grassland-nesting birds such as Eastern meadowlarks and bobolinks have raised their broods. Through the summer, cottontails will sneak out from the newly created shrubland and young forest into the fields to nibble on succulent plants.

In the future, conservationists plan to clearcut about one third of the wooded habitat on the cottontail management unit – in approximately 5- to 7-acre patches – every 10 years. That way, there will always be at least 15 to 20 connected acres of dense young forest available to rabbits. The other 10 to 15 acres will provide decent habitat while transitioning to a more-mature stage.

It’s not known whether New England cottontails now live on Highland Farm, but biologists think the rabbits will soon find the preserve if they’re not already present. Wild rabbits from other areas could be translocated to the property, and Highland Farm could be a good site for reintroducing rabbits bred in captivity.

New England Cottontail Trail at Highland Farm

Hikers can follow a marked trail through cottontail habitat at Highland Farm Preserve./C. Fergus

The preservation and management of Highland Farm is part of the Mt. Agamenticus to the Sea Conservation Initiative, which protects a range of community and ecological values in a six-town region in southern Maine. In years to come, Highland Farm will offer great wildlife-viewing and recreation to outdoor-minded folks while safeguarding habitat for a range of species.

Come Visit!

Highland Farm Preserve lies along Cider Hill Road in York, Maine, north of Kittery. A parking lot and information kiosk are west of the cottontail management area. Public access projects of the York Land Trust are open for quiet, low-impact day-use activities such as hiking, skiing, and snowshoeing. The Maine Conservation Corps has cut more than two miles of trails, including a New England Cottontail Trail that circles the management area.

To arrange a tour, contact York Land Trust at P.O. Box 1241, York Harbor ME 03911, 207-363-7400, info@yorklandtrust.org. Direct questions about New England cottontails and their habitat needs to Jeff Tash, New England Cottontail Restoration Coordinator (Maine), 207-646-9226 x 32, jeffrey_tash@fws.gov.

Funding and Partners

York Land Trust, Town of York, Kittery Water District, Environmental Defense Fund, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge), Natural Resources Conservation Service, Maine Department of Conservation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Wildlife Management Institute