The Natural Element

Billy Rankin, Vice President of Public Programming and Marketing

This is the seventh article in an ongoing series outlining long-range planning at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. New to the series? You can visit our previous articles here:

3,000 Acres of Discovery

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is an expansive property with an interesting balance of land use. By the numbers, the 3,000 acres that make up Shaker Village’s property are divided approximately in this way:

  • 200 acres are “developed,” with buildings, roads and parking areas.
  • 800 acres are agricultural, with most of this being leased land for modern farming, and a little over 1/8 of this acreage used for the Village’s educational farm.
  • 2,000 acres comprise the Preserve at Shaker Village. Of this, 1,000 acres are managed as a prairie, with a habitat of summer grasses and wild flowers. The remaining 1,000 acres are woods, wetlands and waterways.

The Preserve comprises 2/3 of Shaker Village’s land. Each year, between 10-20,000 guests visit the Village specifically for the Preserve. These guests come to hike, bike and ride horses. They come for nature-based programming, and family photos. They come for 5k’s and stargazing. And more are coming every year.

Recent History

Although the Preserve and its 33 miles of multi-use trails are a major part of the Shaker Village experience today, it is a relatively new addition to the organization’s offerings. Until 2008, most of the land that is now managed as a prairie had been operating as a cattle farm. Unfortunately, the cattle operation was not financially sustainable and, as with many business operations during the economic downturn of ’08, change was necessary. The Shaker Village Board of Trustees’ voted to forego management of the cattle operation, scaling down to focus on the educational component instead.

So, what was to become of the cattle pastures that remained?

While the Board realized they needed to move out of the cattle business, there was not yet a consensus on what to move toward. The idea of converting over 1,000 acres to prairie was one born of being in the right place at the right time.

Don Pelly had worn many hats at Shaker Village during his years associated with the nonprofit. While working as a science teacher he found time to participate in the Pleasant Hill Singers, assist with photography at the Village and lead some public programs here and there. When he retired from teaching, he took on a full-time role at the Village. In 2008 he was the Village’s Property Manager, and attending the retirement party for a colleague.

It was at this party that the seeds for the Preserve were sown, if you’ll excuse the pun, as Don first learned in casual conversation that government grants were available for converting pastures to native prairie. After some research into the opportunity, Don presented this option to Shaker Village’s leadership team, and work on creating the Preserve we know today was begun.

Although the Village had previously provided some hiking and riding trails, the initiative to diversify the natural environment on the property also led to the establishment of an expanded trail system. These new resources led to additional environmental studies and educational opportunities. Each success and challenge led to the next opportunity. Soon, Don was appointed as the Village’s first Preserve Manager, a title he passed on in 2015 to Ben Leffew, who had worked alongside Don for years and still oversees operations in the Preserve today.

Jumping Off Points

To access Shaker Village’s trail system, guests begin at one of three different trailheads: East, Center or West. Over 90% of guests use the Center or West trailheads, as they provide access to the greatest variety of trails for hikers, and an equestrian center for horseback riders. As use of the trail system has increased, the need for additional infrastructure to support the guest experience, while also protecting delicate ecosystems, has become more apparent.

Without adequate parking, guests are more likely to park in the grass, along the prairie or near erosion-prone locations near waterways. Without convenient restrooms, guests are more likely to “make their own” wherever nature calls. A higher number of guests is a very good thing, but without the proper amenities, the quality of the experience can decline for everyone.

With these challenges and opportunities in mind, Shaker Village’s Long-Range Planning Committee began a plan to design and construct a new nature center along the road to the Center and West trailheads.

A Prairie Home

A nature center will provide a first-class introduction to the natural and cultural environment surrounding Shaker Village. Along with educational exhibits and indoor gathering space that can be used for a variety of events, the nature center will also provide staff offices, a lab and supply storage. Restroom facilities and public parking will alleviate immediate needs in this area of the property, and the Village’s capacity for hikers, field trips, group tours, summer campers and other guests will expand greatly.

A new nature center at Shaker Village may be located near this location, along the West Lot Road, just prior to the Center Trailhead.

The addition of a nature center will relieve pressures from historic buildings like the 1815 Carpenter’s Shop (Welcome Center) and the 1820 Meeting House (the largest indoor area for banquets currently).

While the design of the new nature center is not yet determined, the Committee has recommended a site that is not in the viewshed of the Historic Centre of the Village, or any other historic buildings. This will allow some flexibility in design, perhaps taking more inspiration from the natural environment than from historic architecture.

Functional goals for the building have been discussed at length, however. After a series of visits to nature centers across the Commonwealth, and an assessment of needs at Shaker Village, the Committee has recommended the following functional goals:

  • A welcoming space to provide visitor orientation to the Preserve
  • ADA compliant throughout the building, and with accessible parking
  • Indoor and outdoor gathering spaces for group programs
  • Ability to seat a minimum of 150 guests for an indoor banquet or reception
  • Flexibility to divide gathering spaces to accommodate multiple and smaller groups
  • Exhibition and gallery space to support interpretation of natural and cultural landscape (could surround reception area)
  • Restrooms with both indoor and outdoor access and ability to subdivide as needed
  • A service kitchen to support hosting catered events
  • Retail opportunities for basic hiking supplies, snacks and souvenirs
  • Staff dedicated spaces, including: offices, breakroom, laboratory, meeting space, restrooms, mud room
  • Adequate storage for event supplies, programming supplies, field supplies, retail inventory and office supplies
  • Parking for guests, staff, coach and school buses
  • Equestrian tie points and loading steps

While the nature center at Shaker Village will be under development in the coming years, you can expect to see additional pilot programs and initiatives in the Preserve that will help our team hone their vision for the new facility. We look forward to sharing more with you, and hearing your feedback along the way!

Follow Our Progress

As projects develop, you can expect to hear more about the progress on social media, through emails and on the Shaker Village blog. We hope you follow along!

If you have questions about master site planning at Shaker Village, or if you would like to support our efforts, please reach out to our Vice President of Public Programming & Marketing, Billy Rankin at [email protected] or 859.734.1574.

Building a Sustainable Future

William Updike, VP of Natural and Cultural Resources
Mike Brown, Maintenance Foreman
Ben Leffew, Preserve Manager
Laura Baird, Assistant Preserve Manager
Mike Moore, Farm Manager

Sustainability of natural resources is a big concept that involves, to a large degree, the implementation of environmentally-friendly practices. Shaker Village’s property is expansive, and our activities are so diverse that we are able to model sustainable practices in many ways. For buildings to be more sustainable they need to be made as efficient as possible to lower energy use. For agriculture, it’s about taking care of the soil and decreasing the use of fertilizers. Setting aside 1000 acres of prairie and 800 acres of forest as natural space and wildlife habitat all contribute to this effort.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the sustainable practices currently taking place at Shaker Village. You may find some items that you are currently doing with your own home or property – and maybe a few that you should be doing!

Building Maintenance

  • Replacing incandescent, florescent, and halogen bulbs with LED light bulbs village-wide for energy savings
  • Gradually taking older, less efficient boiler/chiller HVAC systems off-line and replacing with geothermal systems
  • Operating certain buildings with set schedules for heating, cooling and lighting for energy efficiency
  • Managing paper, cardboard, glass and plastic recycling site-wide

Land Management

  • Using rechargeable mowers, trimmers, and leaf-blowers where possible, rather than gasoline powered
  • Mulching grass clippings
  • Collecting  leaves in the fall for use in the garden beds as mulch
  • Managing tree health village-wide
  • Repairing areas where erosion takes place, and putting in preventative measures to manage erosion and water drainage responsibly
New pathways and landscaping efforts are making areas of the Village grounds more accessible, while guarding from erosion.


  • 150 Permanent garden beds
  • Low to no-till practices in gardens
  • Strict crop rotations
  • High diversity of crops
  • Integration of livestock into crop rotations to contribute nutrients and minerals back into the soil
  • Cover cropping to prevent erosion
  • Certified USDA Organic
  • Companion cropping, to support healthy growth without chemicals
  • Creation of own-fertility through composting farm/garden and restaurant waste
  • Poultry management of compost site – “deep litter method”
Non-chemical methods for weed control, including the use of “solar tarps,” have contributed to Shaker Village’s USDA Certified Organic status.


  • Integration of runner ducks into orchard yard to clean the grounds and prevent pests
  • Proper fruit tree pruning to manage health
  • Natural spray management to no-spray management for apples
  • Fruit variety & root-stock selection for resiliency
Indian Runner Ducks enjoying their home in the Village’s Orchard.


  • Preservation of heritage breeds
  • Strict livestock rotation to maintain integrity of pastures
  • Multi-species grazing to diversify impact on fields
  • Long rest period between grazing fields for recovery
  • Management through soil testing
  • Integration of livestock in Preserve/native grasses for natural management of those spaces
  • Shaker Village’s rule for grazing: Graze 1/3, Stomp 1/3 and leave 1/3 of grasses behind for recovery
Diversified livestock grazing in pastures at Shaker Village.


  • Carbon sequestration (trapping more carbon) in the roots of native grasses and plants that cover 1,000 acres of our property
  • Increasing woody acreage = increase carbon sequestration
  • Invasive species management and promoting native plants enhances the property’s resilience in a changing climate
  • Limited use of herbicides
  • Partnering for stream water quality sampling with Kentucky River Watershed Watch
Native grasses and wildflowers have much larger root systems then cool-weather grasses allowing them to “trap” more carbon.

We hope to see you on a future tour of the Village’s Historic Centre, Farm and Preserve, where you can see and enjoy our sustainable practices in action!

If you are interested in making a donation to support our efforts, please click here.

Going Batty!

Ben Leffew, Preserve Manager
Laura Baird, Assistant Preserve Manager

Bats are an integral, but often overlooked and always misunderstood, part of our ecosystem. These small flying mammals eat their body weight in insects every night, making them great at controlling pests and reducing the spread of pathogens like West Nile and Zika. The big brown bat, the largest species caught in The Preserve, eats up to 4,000 mosquitoes each night!

A Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis)

In early July, a private contractor surveyed The Preserve’s bat population by setting up 30 foot tall nets across various parts of our trails and creeks. We set up three nets every night, checking each of them every ten minutes between sunset and 2:00 a.m. In five days of netting we caught over 50 individuals representing five different species:

  1. Big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus) – one of the largest and most common species in Kentucky, associated with man-made structures.
  2. Red bat (Lasiurus borealis) – a common, forest-dwelling species, roosting in trees instead of caves.
  3. Gray bat (Myotis grisescens) – listed as a threatened species in Kentucky and an endangered species federally, this cave-dwelling species migrates between breeding caves in the summer and hibernation caves in the winter.
  4. Small-footed bat (Myotis leibii) – a tiny, state threatened species, associated with cliffs.
  5. Evening bat (Nycticeius humeralis) – listed as a species of ‘special concern’ in Kentucky, primarily roosting in trees.

Interestingly, our most endangered species was the most commonly caught – over 40% of our caught bats were gray bats!

A Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys volans) who found its way into our “bat net!”

Up next for the Preserve Team is migration songbird banding. This helps us determine which bird species utilize our habitat as a refueling station for their trip south of the border for winter. To ensure the health of the birds, this event is not open to the public. Don’t worry, we take lots of pictures to share!

Milkweed and Monarchs – Oh My!

Ben Leffew, Preserve Manager
Laura Baird, Assistant Preserve Manager

Monarch butterfly in the Shaker Village Preserve

Entering the summer months marks not only a transition in the seasons on the calendar, but also a transition in the species of blooming plants which act as sources of nectar, pollen, and sites for insects to lay eggs.

Spring forest wildflowers offer a food source for pollinators as early as February, when they can take advantage of sunlight hitting the forest floor before the trees start to shade the understory. As spring ends, most forest plants have finished blooming and the show picks up out in the prairies, where wildflowers can thrive throughout the warm months without having to compete for light with large trees.

Of the many diverse, vibrant wildflowers of summer, milkweed stands out from the rest as both an excellent nectar source, providing liquid energy for wide variety of insect species, as well as being the only plants monarch butterflies lay their eggs on.

Five species of milkweed have been confirmed in The Preserve at Shaker Village: common (Asclepias syriaca), butterfly (Asclepias tuberosa), green (Asclepias viridis), swamp (Asclepias incarnate), and four-leafed (Asclepias quadrifolia). Not surprisingly, common milkweed is the most abundant on the property as it is large, extremely tough, spreads itself easily and responds well to our prescribed fire regime.

Pipevine swallowtail on butterfly milkweed

The relationship between monarchs and milkweeds is one of the most famous examples of specialization in the insect world, and dates back millennia. Milkweeds produce a thick, sticky, toxic sap reminiscent of white latex, and have small hairs on the leaves to deter insects from taking a bite. Despite these physical and chemical defenses, several insects have evolved the ability to not only consume milkweed, but consume it exclusively. Monarchs are the most famous of these, requiring milkweed to lay their eggs.

Swamp milkweed

If it seems like monarch butterflies are getting a lot of attention these days, it’s for good reason. Monarchs have become an ambassador species for both large-scale prairie habitat restoration and small, backyard pollinator gardens and waystations. Providing good, milkweed-rich habitat for monarchs also benefits hundreds of other insect species that thrive in the prairie and in turn feed our many birds.

The Preserve at Shaker Village has miles of trails crossing through native prairies for you to explore! If you would like to learn more about monarch butterflies first-hand, you might enjoy our Monarch Butterfly Tagging workshop in September!

Bird Banding 101

Just like every department, The Preserve team has unique ways in measuring successes for Shaker Village. Since we started converting cool season pastures to native warm season grasses and wildflowers in 2009, we have dramatically changed the vegetative composition of the landscape. The majority of the changes we’ve made to the landscape were done to enhance the habitat of grassland obligate songbirds, such as the Northern Bobwhite Quail. Essentially, if you build and maintain good habitat for quail, then you raise the level of habitat for all songbirds. So, how can we tell whether this project has been a success?

Bird Banding at Shaker Village from Shaker Village on Vimeo.

Bird Banding is a metric we use to determine if we have been successful with our habitat enhancement that involves capturing birds using the protocols set forth by the Institute for Bird Populations’ Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program. We set up mesh nets and check them at regular time intervals. The birds are removed from the nets and placed in protective bags, then checked for fat stores, breeding condition, feather wear and age by trained wildlife biologists. After that, the birds are released back into the wild.

This project was set up to obtain four years of baseline data in an abandoned cool season pasture, then convert the pasture to native warm season grasses and wildflowers, while continuing to collect data for a total of 10 years. This gives us an idea of how the property was used before the conversion, as well as what impact our conversion has had on bird health and overall numbers. What we’ve found after nine years of MAPS efforts is that birds LOVE what we’ve done with the place. Number of captures have been slightly up during the breeding season (May-July), but way up during the migration season (September-November). On Sept. 7 of this year, we captured our 100th species at the Shaker Village banding station! This milestone is significant in that not only are our capture numbers high, our diversity is high as well. High population numbers, along with high levels of diversity, equate to a high-five from the bird community!

We do what we can to keep our birds (and other wildlife) happy. Check out the bird blind area or take a hike on one of our trails to see The Preserve for yourself.

The Preserve and trails will be closed Mondays – Fridays from Nov. 1 – Dec. 29 for private hunts, habitat and wildlife management and trail restoration work. Learn more.

Ben Leffew is the preserve manager. A Kentucky Proud product straight out of…