By: John I Connors
One Field Trip
In the fall of 2019, I led twelve High Schoolers from the Neighborhood Ecology Corps on a hike at Horseshoe Farm Nature Preserve. This program serves youth from Southeast Raleigh based at Raleigh’s Walnut Creek Wetland Center, but our field trip was to learn about the unique natural features found at this north Raleigh preserve. Within the first hundred yards we crossed paths with a Rough Earth Snake. At twelve inches it might easily be confused with a nightcrawler except for the eyes and flicking tongue. For many this was their first “hands-on” interaction with a snake.
Farther along we coaxed a Marbled Spider out of her curled leaf retreat by tossing a small grasshopper into her orb web. A blotchy yellow arachnid with orange legs- perfect Halloween colors. As the group became more comfortable observing one pointed at a small green dragonfly that was following us. It was a female Common Pondhawk, attracted to the insects stirred by our feet. I caught her in a net, carefully pinched her wings closed and demonstrated the workings of her jaws- she will bite a blade of grass when offered. Next, we surprised a five-foot long Black Racer which decided to dash to its hideaway across the trail, right through the middle of our group. We jumped as it “raced” between us and had a lot to talk and laugh about afterwards. A two-snake day field trip is memorable in any city park. But Horseshoe Farm is one place that consistently delivers.
There was a time in the early two-thousands that the fate of Horseshoe Farm Nature Preserve was in question. Some wanted the pastures to be graded into ball fields. But a large irrepressible group headed by People for Parks and the Wake Audubon Society recognized the obvious. There just aren’t many places like this.
Horseshoe is named for the large granite dome buried beneath much of the park which forces the Neuse River to flow the long way around while continuing its journey east. From the air the river’s bend resembles the curvature of a horseshoe. Soils covering the dome are sandy rather than clay, and much of it is maintained as a wildlife meadow. Below the dome, in the floodplain forest, there are flats and ridges of deposited sand which form natural levees- something unique enough to be recognized by the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program. There are three seasonal floodplain pools here which collect rainwater in winter.
This unique combination of geologic elements influences the flora and fauna of the park. The meadow is alive with insects, especially grasshoppers, dragonflies, and butterflies. Extensive beds of Common Milkweed attract Monarch Butterflies and they are featured on an interpretive sign. Bird watchers are drawn to the numerous species using the meadows. In summer there are Indigo Buntings, Common Yellowthroats and the Yellow-breasted Chat- an elusive bird best recognized by its strange habit of singing throughout the night. There are five species of swallow foraging over the meadows in June, and in winter eleven species of sparrow have been tallied. Only the NCSU farm fields in southern Wake County boast a greater diversity. There are River Otters by the Neuse, Groundhogs by the meadow, and Coyotes hunting rodents throughout. The night skies are dark and star filled.
The floodplain pools are probably the most noteworthy feature, as they are the breeding site for an impressive array of reptiles and amphibians, insects and other creatures. Perhaps the most unusual is the Eastern Spadefoot Toad- a species that spends much of its life buried under the sand but bursts forth to breed during flooding rains. Its breeding voice is loud and carries across the park. Horseshoe is the only place in northern Wake County where we know they exist. This past spring the WakeNature Preserve Partnership helped organize a bioblitz at Horseshoe Farm and in addition to two state-listed plants, scientists found a strange and rare species of Terrestrial Leach. The floodplain pools are an especially fragile environment, and along with the floodplain itself, are subject to erosion and pollution from unwise development. I have taken my grandkids there many times searching for salamander larvae and tadpoles.
When the City Council made the decision to protect Horseshoe Farm more than fifteen years ago, they authorized the development of a Master Plan and funded Phase 1. This provided for a small parking lot, a picnic shelter, and a Clivus Multrum composting toilet. Future phases include a Nature Center, but until that is realized the preserve remains an unstaffed satellite of Durant Nature Preserve. Many people do not know what a special place it is. Unfortunately, this leaves the Horseshoe Farm Nature Preserve vulnerable.
Most great nature-oriented parks seek ways to protect their natural resources while also defining and enhancing the visitor experience that depends on them. This means having staff to inventory resources, and then to develop programs and manage visitors coming to the park. These protections do not currently exist at the park today. Because we remain in an early Phase of park development, we do not yet know what the true visitor experience will be. Part of that will be determined by the resource richness when the next Phase begins. And that is dependent on actions taken to protect them today.
The resource base, particularly the plants and animals, depend on having a stable or at least predictable environment. Planning staff and elected officials can influence this through zoning decisions. Most great nature-oriented parks protect their resources and the visitor experience offered by providing a buffer of land around the park where low density development is encouraged. This is what currently exists at Horseshoe Farm.
Which brings us to this moment … High density development adjacent to this nature-dependent park risks diminishing the opportunity of the future park visitors to enjoy the highest quality experience they were promised when Horseshoe Farm was set aside as a nature preserve. Approving the proposal to add over three hundred apartments adjacent to Horseshoe Farm will contribute to the diminishment of the visitor experience. There will be increased noise, and light pollution, and congestion, and pet waste, and soil erosion, and flooding events. Numerous scientific studies have shown that wild animals avoid trails with heavy dog traffic, and apartment dwellers will understandably use the Horseshoe for their daily dog walk. And there will be fewer birds, and it will be harder to hear those that remain, and the flora and fauna of the entire floodplain can be expected to diminish. Even the visitor experience of floating on the Neuse River in a canoe will be diminished as the route will feel more urban and less remote.
There are thousands of places across the City of Raleigh where a large apartment complex can be built without having a deleterious affect on a nature park. But there is only one Horseshoe Farm Nature Preserve. Its fate is now in our hands.
For further details on Horseshoe Farm Park and Wake Audubon’s opposition to Rezoning Case Z-40-21: https://www.wakeaudubon.org/initiatives/advocacy/horseshoe-farm-park/, Facebook and Instagram.