Editor’s note: Ducks Unlimited Canada remembers and honours Gilbert (Gil) Henderson, a life-long visionary, who passed away on January 30th 2017 in his 91st year. DUC worked with Gil and his late wife Molly to conserve and restore wetlands for almost 40 years. In 2011, DUC and friends paid special tribute to Gil and Molly for their lifelong passion and environmental achievements at Tim Horton Onondaga Farms in St. George, Ont. Read their story in this article, originally published in the fall 2011 issue of Conservator.
Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) and friends recently paid special tribute to Gil Henderson and his late wife, Molly, for their lifelong passion and environmental achievements at Tim Horton Onondaga Farm in St. George, Ontario.
“The list of environmental initiatives at Onondaga is extraordinary,” said national DUC director Gord Chaplin at the dedication ceremony. “DUC has been working with Molly and Gil Henderson to conserve and restore wetlands for over 30 years. Today’s event is a tribute to the Hendersons’ environmental achievements and their commitment to wetland conservation.”
In the 1960s, Gil and Molly purchased the land that would become their beloved 900-acre Onondaga Farm. While the Hendersons raised cattle (Polled Herefords) that were marketed around the globe, Onondaga became known for the habitat conservation work undertaken by Molly and Gil. Their relationship with DUC began in 1978, when the Hendersons partnered with DUC to implement five wetland restoration projects. This was followed by 20 additional projects in 1990, and three more in 1997. These wetlands range from a half-acre to 25 acres in size, and represent some of the best waterfowl habitat in Ontario.
“We are extremely grateful to landowners and visionaries like the Hendersons who conserve wetlands on their land,” said the Henderson’s longtime friend and past DUC president Neil Downey. “Wetlands are not only vital to the life cycles of waterfowl and other wildlife, they also filter our water, help to moderate climate change, mitigate the impact of flood surges and offer tremendous recreational and learning opportunities for us all.”
In addition to working with DUC to restore and manage the wetlands on their property, Molly and Gil played a key role in bringing trumpeter swans back to Ontario. Their restored wetlands provided an ideal location as a key re-introduction site for these wonderful and majestic waterfowl.
The Hendersons also worked with a wide range of other partners, including the Grand River Conservation Authority and the University of Guelph. These partnerships resulted in a number of other environmental achievements on Onondaga Farms, including: a chestnut tree research plot; installation of bluebird boxes and waterfowl nesting structures; improved fish habitat; and provision of wildlife corridors. Thousands of native trees and shrubs have also been planted throughout the farm.
By demonstrating the connection between a healthy farm and the conservation of wetlands, Gil and Molly were leaders in the area of sustainable land use. Onondaga Farms has served as a model of sustainable agriculture, and has played host to thousands of cattle producers looking to learn about methods like fencing off wetlands to livestock and leaving vegetative buffers around marsh edges.
Sadly, in 1999, Molly became terminally ill. She and Gil made a monumental decision to work with Ron Joyce, their close friend and co-founder of Tim Horton’s, to create the 400-acre Tim Horton Onondaga Farms camp under the Tim Horton Children’s Foundation.
“I had been friends with Gil and Molly for years. They’re wonderful people, always actively involved in the community and playing a significant part in anything they took on,” recalled Joyce. “When Molly became ill, they decided they wanted the environmental efforts that were their pride and joy to be continued. Molly very much wanted Onondaga Farms to be a place to teach children about the environment”.
Outdoor education, including wetland ecology, is a key part of the program at the camp at Onondaga Farms, which leaves a conservation legacy that will benefit the next generation and beyond. “It’s one of the finest and most successful camps in Canada, and it is popular with school classes in the area,” Joyce said.
In addition to his many conservation pursuits, Gil has actively served as a volunteer for a number of organizations, including DUC. Gil is an original member of the Grand River DUC committee, which began hosting fundraising dinners in Cambridge in early 1982. This was among the first events in Ontario that paved the way to a grassroots fundraising program (the cornerstone of DUC’s event system), which now boasts over 500 events across the country every year.
Gil was elected to the DUC national board of directors in May 2001 and served, fittingly, on the education and conservation programs committees. Beyond the volunteer support he provided to DUC, Gil has been generous as a major donor. He is a Diamond Life Sponsor, a Bronze Teal donor and a Feather Society member through DUC’s planned giving program. He has made additional donations through Onondaga Farms – contributions that have greatly assisted DUC’s critical conservation work in Ontario.
“Gil is a serious believer in what DUC does, as demonstrated through his generosity of time and as a major donor,” Downey said. “He has wholeheartedly shared our vision from the very first time he approached us to help him enhance his land.”
Though he is humble about his many achievements, Gil has received recognition for his significant contributions to agriculture and the environment, including the North American Waterfowl Management Plan’s National Great Blue Heron Award and, more recently, the Conservation Pioneer Award at the A.D. Latornell Conservation Symposium in November, 2010.
“Knowing Gil, I’m sure his greatest reward comes from treasured memories of time spent on or near the wetlands, forests and rolling grasslands of Onondaga Farms, not to mention embarrassing his lifelong friends in a duck blind with his crack shooting!,” said Downey, (Gil is a three-time Olympian in trap shooting, and he and Molly were co-chairs of the 1976 Olympic Games Shooting Committee).
“By living and leading by example, Gil and Molly have been, and continue to be, an inspiration to us all. They have endeared themselves to so many people and were so tireless and dedicated in their efforts – I can’t think of stronger champions and ambassadors for wetland and wildlife conservation in Ontario.”