‘Oyster castles’ in place at Windsor Castle Park

Published 4:28 pm Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Stray off the gravel path in Smithfield’s Windsor Castle Park by the kayak launch and you’ll see battlement-shaped “oyster castles” edging the bank of Cypress Creek.

These tiered cinderblock structures form a type of “living shoreline,” according to the James River Association, a nonprofit organization that monitors and advocates for the river’s health. The castles are intended to create artificial oyster reefs, which help purify the water, while serving as a barrier to slow the erosion of the shoreline.

It’s a steep descent from the trail to the shoreline. As of now, there’s no railing to keep visitors eager to see the shoreline from losing their balance and falling down the hill, and depending on the time of day, the oysters might be underwater. They’re only visible at low tide.

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Behind the castles, growing in the sand along the riverbank, are native marsh grasses. But none of it — not the castles, nor the grasses, nor the sand — has been there very long.

According to Ryan Walsh, the association’s lower James restoration coordinator, 43 volunteers, most from the general public, assisted in the castles’ construction between March 3 and June 24. Prior to that, wake from frequent boat traffic had been washing away this particular stretch of shoreline.

Among those volunteers is Henry McBurney, a member of the Virginia Master Naturalists. McBurney is 80 years old, has had trouble with his knees, but still responded when the call went out for volunteers.

“We just are kind of on the radar of different organizations where they want volunteers,” McBurney said.

McBurney worked with volunteers from another Master Naturalist chapter on the Peninsula, several government agencies and Smithfield Foods employees to plant over 1,000 plugs of native grasses in four hours. Volunteers also erected wire fencing to keep wildlife from eating the newly-planted grasses, which will eventually be removed once the grasses fill in. The grasses have already grown substantially over the past few months.

“You can see how this grass has thrived,” McBurney said.

The work was funded via an $80,000 grant the association had received from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation last year for the purpose of identifying three demonstration sites for living shorelines in Isle of Wight, Surry and Prince George counties.

“Windsor Castle Park stood out as an attractive site for a demonstration project in particular as the shoreline is very close to a public trail and there is ample opportunity to educate the public while simultaneously solving an erosion problem and providing habitat for native wildlife,” Walsh said.

Oysters are “filter feeders,” McBurney explained, meaning they feed off organic material in the water. When wind blows fertilizer and dust from a farmer’s fields into the water, it spurs the growth of algae, which takes oxygen out of the water. Too much fertilizer, without the oysters, can bring about an algae bloom, which can result in the creek’s oxygen levels dropping below the levels needed to provide a natural habitat for fish.

The second living shoreline project is located on private property in Carrollton on Brewer’s Creek.

“The homeowners have been more than accommodating and will allow us to show off the project area in the future,” Walsh said.

The third project is to be built at the Appomattox River Regional park in Prince George County next to the I-295 bridge, but high water levels from persistent storms over the summer prevented that project from moving forward this year.

“We will monitor the site over the winter and hope to begin installation in the spring of 2022,” Walsh said.

The James River Association will continue to monitor the Windsor Castle Park site as well, and has funds available to provide maintenance over the next three years. The association will also be working with the Windsor Castle Park Trail Doctors, a volunteer group founded in 2012 for the purpose of maintaining the park’s walking trails, to create educational signage about the project near the kayak launch. These will include landings, McBurney said, so visitors don’t need to climb down a steep hill and risk falling to see the shoreline.