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Middletown Life

Preserving Harry and Edith's farm

Apr 05, 2016 04:55PM ● By Steven Hoffman

Many years ago, on the farm that now partially bears his name, Harry Roberts of Odessa went hunting muskrats.

At the time, Roberts was courting Edith, a woman who would eventually become his wife, and he wanted to impress her in advance of an upcoming social occasion they were planning in Wilmington. The pelts he collected did thier job, because all evening, Edith looked resplendent in a fur coat.

The beautiful garment is now preserved at Delaware Wild Lands in Odessa, an organization that owns and manages more than 6,000 acres in New Castle County and 21,000 acres in Delaware.

The fur coat is not the only item of the Roberts family that Delaware Wild Lands protects.

Last November, after more than a decade of negotiations, the 1,250-acre Taylors Bridge Roberts Farm in Odessa was purchased by The Conservation Fund and donated to Delaware Wild Lands (DWL) for permanent protection and management. The acquisition was made possible with a grant from Mt. Cuba Center, and creates more than 10,000 acres of contiguous and protected wildlife habitat in the vicinity of the property.

Bordered by three waterways, including the state-designated priority Blackbird Creek,

the Appoquinimink River and Hangman’s Run, the property had been one of the largest unprotected tracts remaining in the coastal zone, until its purchase. Owned and operated by the Roberts family for more than half a century, the property features acres of freshwater tidal wetlands and forested coastal plains ponds -- all of which provide ideal habitat for a variety of species, including bald eagle, osprey, fox, muskrat, otter and shorebirds.

“The Roberts Farm is a key linchpin for wildlife habitat and water quality protection in the upper part of the Delaware Bay because of its large size, important location and careful management," said Blaine Phillips, Senior Vice President and Mid-Atlantic

Regional Director for The Conservation Fund. “This property has been a priority for protection for over twenty years, and now thanks to the incredible support of Mt. Cuba Center, we were able to preserve it forever. Our partnership with Mt. Cuba Center and Delaware Wild Lands brought together the key elements to make sure that the legacy of this family farm will live on.”

“Conserving open space is critical to maintaining biodiversity and a healthy environment, which is the essence of Mt. Cuba Center’s mission,” said Ann C. Rose, president of the Board of Mt. Cuba Center. “Together with the adjacent tracts of protected land, the Roberts Farm property preserves a contiguous, protected corridor along Delaware’s ecologically important coastal zone.”

“Protection of these 1,250 acres and my family legacy is a remarkable accomplishment for my family and for the future of Delaware,” said Chris Roberts. “For decades, I’ve worked to improve and restore the diversity and quality of wildlife habitat on these lands. I planted dozens of cedar trees along Staves Landing Road that define and protect the interior of the property, refined management of key resources of the property including the 100-acre Big Pond Refuge and kept invasive species and phragmites at bay. I am pleased to know that this property will be forever protected and managed for these purposes.”

Although the property is one of the many crown jewels in the continuing expanse of protected lands in Delaware, it took nearly a decade of discussions to aquire it. Toward the end of his life, Harry Roberts wanted to assure that the property he had worked on over the course of his lifetime would help provide for his family, long after he was gone. After his passing several years ago, Edith and her two sons inherited the property, and a concerted effort by DWL began to convince the Roberts family to preserve it.

Over time, DWL Executive Director Kate Hackett, Phillips and other conservationists met with Chris Roberts in order to put a conservation plan in place.

"It was a full-court press, in order to gain the trust of the Roberts family, explore possibilities and answer all questions," Hackett said. "Then Mt. Cuba Center took an interest in our efforts, and funded the cost of acquiring the property. There are a number of conserved properties in that area already, so to add this as a missing puzzle piece and manage this large swath of conserved lands was a huge incentive for them.”

Over the next several years, DWL will implement a long-term management plan for the property that will include farming, hunting, trapping, wildlife tours and bird walks. The Taylors Bridge Robert Farm will also serve as a 1,250-acre classroom: school and university groups will visit the property for research and educational opportunities.

The organziation is beginning a collaboration with the Brandywine Zoo Chapter of the American Associatoin of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) to study the habitat needs, nesting and migration patterns of kestrels – a small bird of prey that's been on the decline in the United States. In addition, DWL is also organizing school tours with the Appoquinimink School District, in order to allow for student-run create stream monitoring programs.

"We are on a steep learning curve in all kinds of ways," said Hackett, who is working with Chris Roberts in getting to know the acreage. "We're already starting to determine what's there, what we want to manage for, and what's happening in the context of the entire region. I'm learning what the Roberts family has known over the course of their lifetime: what species have lived here, the vegetation and sea levels; and the proper management of water levels in the reserve."

Because the property will continue to be farmed as well as made available for hunting, there will be no trail system constucted on the property. However, on May 7, DWL will host an Open House of the Taylors Bridge Roberts Farm for the entire community.

"It's a celebration to say, 'Look what we all did, together,'" Hackett said. "It's intended to

showcase the beauty of the property, and allow families to take a hayride to see the marshlands, admire the the ducks in the preserve, see the boardwalk in the marsh, as well as respect it as a working farm.

"We have a really strong commitment to making sure that the lands we conserve remain environmentally and economically productive," Hackett added. "For 25 years, we as a community and as a group of conservationists have known that the Roberts Farm is critically important to the entire matrix of our natural habitat. The quality of its wildlife and its scenic vistas are indicative of an iconic Delaware landscape. It's part of our historical and cultural heritage."

For more information about the Taylors Bridge Roberts Farm, other projects, or to make a donation to Delaware Wild Lands, visit Delaware Wild Lands is located at 315 Main Street, Odessa, De. 19730-0505. Phone: 302-378-2736.

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