The 1200-acre protected area encompassed by the Spencer Mountain Conservation Area, the 750-acre farm and forest owned by the NC Plant Conservation Program, along with the adjacent properties owned and protected by the Catawba Lands Conservancy, offers the full range of ecological diversity available in the North Carolina piedmont. The area is surrounded by Charlotte’s metropolitan development except on the west, where unprotected forestland extends to the Spencer Mountain monadnock, with its montane ecology. The signal feature of the area is the South Fork of the Catawba River which, in stark contrast to the main stream, was never dammed except by relatively small mill ponds. The protected area extends four and a half miles on the river’s left bank and a mile and a half on its right bank.
A vital factor in Redlair’s ecology is its hilliness. The river cuts near the mountain on the west and the watershed divide with the Catawba (the Hickory Grove Road) on the east. This extreme hilliness was a demerit for the farmers who strove to eke out an agricultural existence for 200 years (with cotton as the dominant cash crop), to such an extent that they did not attempt to cultivate a quarter or third of the terrain (in contrast to Mecklenburg County and western Gaston County, where the percentage of tilled terrain, past or present, typically reaches over 90 percent). This serious demerit for farming was the essential virtue for preservation of diverse ecology.
Some 100 acres of upland terrain remain as hay fields or cow pasture. There are two bottomlands along the river, one of which (15 acres) was, until 2010, partially cultivated in corn and melons and the other (10 acres) is given solely over to haymaking, and there are four small bottomlands along a central stream, one under cultivation in corn and two of which have been planted in native grasses with assistance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The federally-endangered von Schweinitz sunflower was discovered in 2002 on a central ridge that had been farmed until the 1940’s, had then grown up in scrub pine, and was badly affected by Hurricane Huge (September 1989). Volunteers from the Conservancy have helped to clear a few acres in the hopes that the sunflower will spread, and a controlled burn over two acres was conducted twice.
Because so many ridges and deep valleys were never put under plow, the protected area boasts several hundred acres of pure hardwood forest, some of it free of invasive plants. There is of course no virgin forest (as there is nowhere in the piedmont) and it is rare to find trees older than 120 years except on field edges or near old house or barn sites, but many of the oaks, tulip poplars, and beeches now reach 30 inches in diameter at breast height, some much more, and numerous hickories, sweetgums, maples, and ashes reach similar size. The understory is remarkably rich, notable especially for
sourwoods (some of remarkable size), dogwoods (suffering from blight), mountain laurel, the rare chalkbark maple, and the rare big-leaf magnolia, which has the largest leaves and blossoms of any native tree in North America. On the eastern seaboard, the big-leaf magnolia is restricted to a tiny zone mainly along the South Fork in northeastern Gaston County. By far the largest concentration is found on Redlair and adjacent Conservancy- owned properties. In some of the deep valleys with north-facing slopes of Redlair, the big-leaf magnolia is, astonishingly, the dominant understory tree.
Forestland that was formerly under cultivation covers the full range from fields that were planted in loblolly pine ten years ago to fields that were abandoned so long ago (probably in the early nineteenth century) that there today are no pines to be seen whatever and the only obvious evidences of agriculture are relict terraces and unnatural erosion channels. Cotton fields abandoned before the 1950’s grew up in scrub pine, some of which today measure over 20 inches in diameter but many of which were felled by Hurricane Hugo (though some old stands are intact), while some fields abandoned after the 1930’s were planted in loblolly (provided by the Forest Service), stands of which range in age from 10 to 80 years, with the latter beginning to metamorphose into hardwoods. These areas of former cultivation are heavily subject to invasion by nonnative plants, including kudzu, combating which has been a major focus of the Rankin family.
The riparian zone along the South Fork (and to some extent along the creeks) offers a much different ecological universe. In addition to the Upper and Lower Bottoms (where archeological digs by the Schiele Museum have demonstrated continuous cultivation since long before the arrival of Europeans/Africans in the 1760s), there are several large alluvial plains of abandoned cultivation, today dominated by river birch, walnut, and plane tree, with much native cane, greenbrier, and muscadine vine and much nonnative privet, autumn olive, and honeysuckle. The riparian forest zone also includes some tracts that were too hilly ever to be cultivated, where non-native plants are much less frequent. The range of bogginess is considerable, from dry and sandy alluvial plain to swamp. The principal swamp is the wetland formed over 100 years ago when the Spencer Mountain canal was built across the Holland Creek, to form what today we call the Spencer Wetland. Upland of this wetland is a much more recent wetland created on the Holland Creek by beavers, whose destruction of large trees by gnawing or drowning has massively transformed the valley. The beavers have destroyed large trees (especially sweet gum) up and down the South Fork.
Attractive small plants and wildflowers are incredibly rich and diverse throughout the forest. The Rankin family has been concerned for some years that the increase in deer population would threaten this forest-floor ecology but, so far, the problem has not exploded out of control. Destruction of surrounding habitat has pushed the deer into this last protected area in the immediate region, but the hay and corn fields offer the deer much to eat and the family (whose members are not hunters) has welcomed deer hunting by neighbors and helpers (with 25 deer killed in a typical hunting season). For a time a few years ago, there were numerous coyotes present to kill fauns, but the local farmers have killed the coyotes wherever they found them. Most mammals are nocturnal and shy,
but squirrels, foxes, raccoons, rabbits, opossums, and skunks are occasionally seen. Bobcat and bear scat has been observed. Birdlife is moderately rich, with 50 species monitored on one morning’s early spring-time outing of the Audubon Society.