Private Nature Reserves sign with tree swallow

Why are nature reserves off-limits to the public?

You may have noticed recently that some nature reserves, such as Fauna Foundation’s Ruisseau Robert Nature Conservancy, are off-limits to the general public.

With over a year of living within the constraints of a pandemic behind us, we’ve come to realize just how important walking outside in the fresh air is for our mental and physical wellbeing. It could be argued that now, more than any other time in recent memory, people are flocking to parks, waterfronts, campgrounds and other green spaces to explore, socialize and stay active. We’ve become more aware of just how beneficial it is to simply take a stroll through a beautiful urban forest or down a secluded beach; to hear the birds sing or to peacefully observe a browsing deer. 

So why are nature reserves off-limits? Although this may seem illogical or offensive at first glance, it’s important to understand the reasoning behind such a restriction and the footprints we humans can sometimes unknowingly have on our fragile surroundings. 

What is the difference between a park and a nature reserve?

Parks, whether they be the ones in your community or the large national parks that you travel to, were designed with human visitors in mind. Generally, they have groomed trails, washrooms, dining areas, play structures, viewing platforms and parking lots, for example. A private nature reserve, on the other hand, is a privately-owned area that is managed with one exclusive purpose in mind: to preserve its fauna and flora. Furthermore, nature reserves are often established to protect specific endangered species and their habitats and/or wildlife and plant species that are under threat within a particular context or geographic area.

Nevertheless, this is not to say that some parks do not have conservation areas integrated, and as you have probably noticed, most parks have policies and rules to follow in order to limit human impacts on the environment. Private nature reserves go one step further, by letting nature continue its course with as little human impact as possible. 

Which human activities particularly affect nature reserves?

Motorized vehicles

For those who love the thrill of speed and the outdoors, riding an ATV or dirt bike can be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, they can also be quite destructive when they are used in places that are not maintained specifically for this purpose. When driven on soft soil in the spring or after rainfall, their tires dig ruts into the ground which not only damage trails, but also tend to retain puddles of water which attract turtles and frogs that risk being crushed when the next vehicle passes. In certain cases, drivers will sometimes leave trails to take shortcuts, avoid pedestrians, or simply to go “off roading”. This is particularly problematic as the vehicles may damage vegetation, run-over small animals, spread invasive species, cause erosion along riverbeds and streams, and leave behind pollutants like oils, gasoline and lubricants.

Noise pollution is also a major concern with ATVs and has been shown to cause auditory damage to animals to an extent that their ability to behave naturally is affected. If we consider that even the sound of our voice is enough to send wildlife fleeing, it becomes obvious that loud machinery can have a stressful impact.

Motorized vehicles leave behind deep ruts in the soil.

Skating rinks on ponds

During our cold winters, snow actually acts as an insulator which protects over-wintering reptiles, amphibians and fish. When we clear snow off of shallow ponds to create skating rinks, the frigid air comes into direct contact with the ice cover, causing it to thicken. The resulting deep frost and longer period of ice cover drastically reduces oxygen levels in the water below the ice and significantly increases risk of mortality for fish and amphibians.

Wandering off trails 

When we are out exploring, especially in an area that isn’t regularly maintained or designed to cater to visitors, we will undoubtedly need to walk off trails and onto the forest floor to avoid fallen trees, mud and water puddles. When leaving trails we risk trampling vegetation, breaking branches and even accidentally stepping on insects, reptiles and amphibians. It also causes erosion as the soil beneath our feet becomes compacted, making it difficult for roots to grow and hold the soil in place. When it rains the soil then washes away. Lastly, walking off trails also contributes to the spread of invasive species because seeds stick to our footwear and clothing.

Domestic animals

As pet owners, it is difficult to think that our beloved four-legged friends could cause any harm. After all, they often share the same characteristics as us: they are playful, curious and adventurous. Within the context of a nature reserve, however, our dogs can unfortunately be a risk to wildlife and their habitats. Although all dogs have different temperaments and triggers, many have a tendency to want to chase after or bark at other animals. Needless to say this is a major stressor for wildlife of all shapes and sizes, whether it be a deer, fox or frog. 

Furthermore, some bird species nest on the ground, like the endangered Bobolink and the Killdeer, and some dogs have a tendency to disturb the birds and chicks or dig at the eggs and nest itself. Just like us humans, dogs can also trample vegetation, unintentionally spread invasive species, and dig up trees, debris and soil, which ultimately disturbs sources of food and habitats for other species. Lastly, even healthy dogs can leave behind parasites, bacteria and viruses in their droppings that can spread to other animals. This is definitely not to say that you should never enjoy the outdoors in the company of your dog, only that places with designated dog-walking trails are a much safer option for both wildlife and your furry companion. 

Speckled killdeer eggs
Killdeer are a species of bird that nest on the ground


Although the majority of us dispose of our trash in the appropriate places, reports have shown that the issue of littering has increased in public parks across Canada along with the influx of visitors in recent years. By limiting human activity, nature reserve managers essentially hope that there will be less trash left in the natural environment. Nevertheless, garbage inevitably finds its way into nature reserves whether it be intentionally (dumping of large electronics or construction materials around the periphery, for example) or accidentally (someone dropping a wrapper in the forest). It’s also important to note that whereas public parks have trash disposal bins along trails and near rest areas, private nature reserves that are off-limits to the public generally do not.

A groundhog in Fauna's Nature Reserve
A groundhog stuffs a garbage bag it found into its burrow.

In conclusion 

Add to the list the straightforward, deliberate acts of poaching, illegal logging and vandalism as well as the risk of fire and it becomes clear that, if the ultimate goal is to let nature evolve with as little human interference as possible, restricting public access in protected areas just makes sense. Nature reserves are essential if we want future generations to have the privilege and opportunity to benefit from nature like we do today. After all, it is with our understanding, love, cooperation and respect that plants and wildlife will continue to flourish and thrive within these protected areas and beyond.