Thursday, March 25, 2021

Oak Valley Sheep Pen


Top of the sheep pen, as seen from Oak Valley Trail
Next time you're on Oak Valley Trail, pause for a moment when you get to the interesting ledge above a seasonal brook (see photo above). This was the top of a livestock pen, probably one for Merino sheep, which were all the rage in the early 1800s. Down below, parallel to the ledge, a split rail fence zig-zagged along the bottom.  There was probably a gate about where a very large oak tree now grows. The entire structure was about 80 feet long and 40 feet wide. 

A zig-zagging line of stone marks an old fence line
Imagining the same spot 200 years ago

Where lumber was abundant, as it was in the Nells Rock area, split rail fences were sometimes built in a zig-zag style, which eliminated the need for posts. Later, as rocks were picked out of the land, those rocks were placed at the bottom of the fence. After the farm was abandoned, the wood rotted away but the stones remained, crossing the land in a zig-zag pattern. There are several examples of this along the trails in the Nells Rock area. 

How a wood fence turns into a zig-zag line of rocks
(from Reverence for Wood by Eric Sloane)

It's possible the pen was used for cattle rather than sheep, but ruins in this area tend to be from the early 1800s, and that's when Merino Sheep were very popular.  The land along Oak Valley Road was otherwise pretty marginal for farming, so it was settled late, abandoned early (mid-1800s), and purchased by the water company in the late 1800s (preserving the stone structures). 

The sheep is next to this muddy wetland crossing

The zig-zagging line of stone near the brook doesn't look like much of anything at first glance, and it's next to where the trail crosses some mud, so it would be real convenient for someone to harvest those stones to place across the mud. We don't want that to happen, so we're looking at building a better wood crossing at the brook. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

Animal Tracks of 2021

We finally got some snowcover for a good month this year, unlike the past few years. Animals left all kinds of tracks, especially deer and squirrels, and coyote. Here are a few of the more interesting tracks left behind:

FISHER There were lots of fisher tracks near the Birchbank overlook. The tracks zigzagged through the steep rocks just below the overlook and went from tree to tree on the flat knoll just below the summit, then straight down the hill, crossing the blue/white connector and reappearing at the Aquarion recharge ponds at the foot of the slope, finally crossing Birchbank Road and heading south down the RR tracks. 

Fisher and deer at Birchbank

Fisher tracks at Birchbank

Fisher are large members of the weasel family, related to otter and skunks. They were once eradicated from Connecticut, but restocked in 1988 in the Northwest hills. They mostly eat small mammals like squirrels and mice and rabbits, and can climb trees. Although fierce for their size, their supernatural attributes have been greatly exaggerated as urban legends.  Screams attributed to fisher are usually that of the red fox.  These tracks were further corroborated by sightings of fisher by residents of the Birchbank neighborhood over the past several years. 

More fisher tracks, although less clear, were also seen off of Nells Rock Trail at Shelton Lakes. With territories of several square miles, one fisher can cover a large area, although these tracks were probably a different individual. 

OTTER  The most delightfully unexpected tracks were these slide marks from an otter at Boehm Pond. The slide marks criss-crossed the entire pond. Otter are extremely playful and slide just for the fun of it. Although the tracks were frozen solid when viewed, it looks like the surface was quite slick and slushy when the tracks were made. A video of the otter was later taken as the otter rested on the ice at a beaver lodge. The beaver keep the water open around the lodge. Otter are scattered about Connecticut and are not seen much in Shelton except perhaps along the Housatonic River. This otter probably swam up the Far Mill River to Isinglass Reservoir, which is near Boehm Pond. 

Otter slide marks

BOBCAT  One particular bobcat crossed Nells Rock Trail off of John Dominick Drive, then walked straight up a rocky cliff, crossed the top, and stopped to survey an overlook (photo). The bobcat then went down a very steep embankment and headed through the mountain laurel towards Buddington Road. Bobcat are well-established in Shelton and throughout Connecticut. Bobcat have rounder prints than coyote, and no nail marks. 

Bobcat at Nells Rock

FOX  Eklund Garden appears to have a resident fox who slips through the deer fence routinely and hopefully finds a meal of voles (voles damage the garden plants). Over the years, holes have been methodically chewed through the plastic fencing at ground level, which is fine as long as the deer can't get in. It's impossible to say who was responsible for these rather surgical holes, but fox are certainly making use of them. 

Slipping through the deer fence
Fox tracks

Shelton Trails Letterboxing Challenge

Each of our letterboxes contains a logbook, ink pad, and custom stamp.

Our latest trail challenge involves "letterboxing" and there is no time limit.  Letterboxing is often confused with geocaching, but it's much older and you don't need gps. Containers have been hidden along twenty trails that our volunteers work on, each one containing a logbook, an ink pad, and a hand-carved rubber stamp with the name of the trail. Use our clue packet to locate the letterbox for each trail, and stamp your clue packet (or personal logbook, if you prefer).  We may have a reward for everyone who has collected all twenty stamps, to be announced at a later date. 

CT DEEP State Forest letterbox

This challenge was inspired by the CT DEEP's long running State Forest letterboxing challenge. They have a letterbox hidden at each of their thirty-two state forests.  Find all 32 and they will send you a hiking stick. 

Clue packets can be downloaded as a pdf file, or you can pick up a pre-printed packet at City Hall that also contains all the trail maps you will need (look near the front door).  Most people will need to refer to our trail maps to complete this challenge. Trail maps are posted on the Conservation Commission's website, which is also accessible directly from the Trails Committee's blog (menu on the right). 

Click HERE for the challenge webpage. You will probably want to create a trail name for yourself and carry a rubber stamp for signing the logbook. And although our letterboxes do contain small ink pads, by tradition letterboxes usually do not contain ink (which can leak all over the letterbox) and it's wise to carry your own ink pad. 

There are many other letterboxes (and geocaches) hidden along Shelton's trails. Clues to find letterboxes are posted on Anyone interested in finding more letterboxes is encouraged to set up a free account and record their "finds." This will result in secret clues becoming visible when you're no longer considered a beginner. 

Happy hunting!