In 1997 Middleton resident Guerdon Coombs walked through 9 foot honeysuckle bushes to get to the hilltop shortly after Dane County purchased the Pheasant Branch Conservancy. He asked when restoration would start, and the County Naturalist Wayne Pauly said that the start day was a decade or more away.
Guerdon decided to get started sooner. He bought a chainsaw and safety equipment, got a few lessons from the County Naturalist and recruited volunteers to cut honeysuckle and buckthorn. Working one morning each week, they cleared the hill!
The results that you see around you today are a work in progress that has taken thousands of hours of work by hundreds of volunteers to remove invasive vegetation, collect seed, and plant over 100 different species.
With hand tools, power equipment, herbicides and prescribed burns, volunteers work year-round to fight back persistent invasives and encourage native species. The volunteers range from retirees and civic groups to ecology students from Middleton High School and their teachers.
Prairies are a unique habitat, containing a wide variety of grasses, sedges and flowering plants, but few, if any trees. Most prairies also have scattered shrubs, often in patches or clones. Most prairie plants have very long roots that help them survive repeated fires.
Depending on moisture and soil conditions, the DNR classifies Wisconsin prairies into 6 types: sand, dry, dry-mesic, mesic, wet-mesic and wet.
Most of the restoration efforts in the Dane County section of the Conservancy have focused on reestablishing mesic and limited areas of dry-mesic and wetmesic prairies that extend from Pheasant Branch Road around Frederick’s Hill and down to the wetlands.
A small tract of dry remnant prairie can be seen on the SW slope of the hill, just below the oak savanna.
Prior to European settlement, Wisconsin had over 2 million acres of prairie, mostly in the southwest. Settlers plowed up the fertile prairie soil to grow crops. Livestock grazed on hillside prairies.
With continuing fragmentation and fire suppression, most of the remaining 2,000 acres or so of original prairie persisted only as small, degraded, isolated parcels.
Following pioneering work at the UW-Madison Arboretum in the 1930s and 1940s, prairie restoration has gained traction in Wisconsin and beyond.
Prairie restoration offers many benefits, including: