Jordan Luck must have known there was something magical about his property when, sometime in the 1830s, he gave it the name “Banshee Reeks.” Or maybe the stories are true, and the name was what he shouted when, drunk, he imagined he’d heard a spirit (in Gaelic, “banshee”) screaming in the mists (“reeks”).
Either way, the magic is still there. Protected by a VOF easement since 1984, Banshee Reeks was dedicated as a nature preserve in 1999 and named a Virginia Treasure in 2016. The 695-acre preserve is the only nature preserve owned by Loudoun County.
Ron Circé has managed the property for the county since 2000. “When I first got here, there were about 300 acres of forest and the rest was hay field,” he says. “It would have been very easy to let all of it revert back to forest, but our goal has always been to aim for the highest biodiversity possible.”
In consultation with experts on habitat restoration at state and federal agencies, Circé worked on transforming the hay fields into grassland and savannah. The result is a mixture of diverse habitats throughout the property, including, in the forested portion, an occurrence of the Mountain/Piedmont Basic Seepage Swamp, a rare ecological community designated by DCR’s Natural Heritage Program.
The different types of habitat host a variety of plants and animals, including more than 125 native bee species. The diversity of bees is an indicator of ecosystem health and means a more resilient natural community. The preserve’s management style has been such a success that the Fairfax County Parks Authority has begun to adopt some of the preserve’s practices for its own grassland restoration program.
From passive recreation to education and research, there are plenty of ways for people to enjoy the magic of the preserve. More than 20 miles of hiking trails were mapped onto on old farm roads in order to disturb as little of the preserve’s intact forest as possible. The trails are 6 feet wide, perfect for social distancing in the COVID-19 era.
“We’ve kept it open for hiking only” since the health crisis began, says Circé. “There’s been a tremendous response. Just counting cars, there were 1,400 over the month of April; in May there were over 1,800.”
While the preserve’s visitor center was closed, preserve staff left out nature bingo cards so that kids and parents could turn a hike into a fun homeschooling project.
Now that the visitor center has reopened, Circé says the preserve’s educational programs will continue as soon as possible. The preserve hosts a Virginia Master Naturalist cohort every year and has won national awards for its senior citizen programming. Seniors, Circé says, are an underserved community in outdoor recreation and education.
“In 2018, we started hosting day hikes and archaeological day camps for seniors. For the day hikes we arranged for a state forester to greet them on the trail, so that he could spontaneously tell them a little about what they were seeing.”
Visitors can also help out in the 11,000-square-foot garden on the property, planted with vegetables and pollinator-friendly wildflowers. All the produce gets harvested once a week and goes to Loudoun Hunger Relief. Circé says they donated more than 1,000 pounds of vegetables last year, and 121 pounds so far this year.
“We had great plans for the garden this year,” he adds. “We were planning to teach container gardening for seniors; we had held only two classes when COVID hit.” The preserve plans on resuming classes as soon as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
People can also volunteer to help with maintenance, such as painting and repairing fences, every third Saturday of the month starting in July.
Explore the magic of Banshee Reeks Tuesday–Thursday and Saturday–Sunday from 8am– 8pm. The preserve is located at 21085 The Woods Rd, Leesburg, VA 20175. For more information about programs and volunteer opportunities, visit the preserve website and follow the Friends of Banshee Reeks Facebook page.