The following is a description of Oxford County's Natural History as compiled from research in the local library by John Harvey.
Naturalists have an interest in all living things, particularly the plants and animals which inhabit our planet. These creatures live here and quietly pursue their ways of life without the necessity of management by people. The Woodstock Field Naturalists concentrate on the natural life of Oxford County - a county which has seen mighty changes since the original settlement.
Oxford County As It Was
Before settlement most of the county was forested although there were areas of marsh, pond, swamp and probably a few patches of prairie. The forests varied depending on the underlying soil and the drainage. Maple and Beech dominated in the rich clay loam. In sandier soils, White Pines grew to immense stature, while giant Cottonwoods were found in the river valleys.
The streams were shaded and cool, the extensive wetlands assured a constant water flow so trout flourished. There were bear, wolves and a few deer. Colonies of passenger pigeons and numerous birds nested in the forests, swamps and marshes.
Our knowledge, particularly of the plant life at that time, is scanty. The first European settlers were too busy trying to cut roads through the forest and clearing land for crops, to record what they were cutting down. Gradually an interest arose in the natural history of the area. A leader in this was a man who had immigrated from England where he had been a keen field naturalist. This man was Herbert Milnes, who founded the Woodstock Naturalist Society in 1934. This is what he wrote for the 25th anniversary dinner of the society in 1959:
Brief Notes on the WOODSTOCK NATURALIST SOCIETY
Presented at their TWENTY-FIFTH ANNIVERSARY DINNER
September 8th, 1959
by Herbert Milnes
On the whole a naturalist is an individualist with a well developed bump of curiosity; one who enjoys being outdoors alone, feeling no lack of companionship in a solitude where there is so much to be investigated and learned; without the distraction of conversation at inconvenient moments. On the other hand that same naturalist feels a need of kindred spirits with whom problems and discoveries may be discussed and shared; with whom field expeditions may be undertaken; and of someone willing to hear and learn what the naturalist is willing and anxious to pass along.
This is how and why naturalist clubs and societies come into being, whether they be formed of the elite of the world's scientists or a lowly group of working-man amateurs. The Woodstock Naturalist Society was no exception.
In April 1934 with this in mind, the writer scouted round until he got in touch with the late Ed. Dutton (whose main interest was birds), with George Nutt (keen on lepidoptera), and with the late Crawford Cook (interested in almost anything that moved) and together we discussed the possibilities of forming a local group. A few tentative talks took place at the writer's home and a few "may-be-interesteds" were invited. These talks went over rather well and on June 11th, 1934 the Woodstock Naturalist Society officially came to life in a room of the Y.M.C.A. At this inaugural meeting eight members were present: Messrs. Cook, Dutton, Ritchie, Greis, Nutt, Bell, Pooley and the writer.
In the list of officers it will be noted that during the whole life of the society there have been but three secretary-treasurers: G.L. Nutt for nine years, Mrs. H. Milnes for twelve years and Bob Chesney in his fifth year - surely a happy record.
Oxford County Today
Patches of the original forest remain, mainly as farm woodlots, surrounded by fields of corn, soybeans and other crops. Swamps have been drained, streams confined to ditches and dams were built - many now gone to be replaced by the large dam at Woodstock creating the Gordon Pittock Lake. Some areas remain in a fairly natural state. Some of these are listed in "A Nature Guide to Ontario", published by the Federation of Ontario Naturalists. They are - Pittock Conservation Area, VanSittart Woods Provincial Wildlife Area, Lockhart Pond Provincial Wildlife Area, Black Creek Swamp, Chesney Conservation Area and Trillium Woods Provincial Nature Reserve. The last two were protected with the active participation of the Woodstock Field Naturalists.
With most of the land now occupied by farms, communities and roads there have been changes in the natural flora and fauna. Ginseng is now gone from the forests but it is extensively cultivated. Starlings, house sparrows, pheasants and house finches have been introduced from elsewhere. Mourning doves, crows and Canada geese which feed in corn fields have seen great population increases as have deer which prefer a more open countryside. The birds of the forest, field and wetlands are under stress both here and in their winter homes to the south so many are less numerous. In spite of this there is still much to make being a naturalist worthwhile in Oxford County.