Mason Farm Biological Reserve

photo of a field at Mason Farm

"It is in these small, wild places, refuges kept wild by their isolation and the protection of the animals in them, that the naturalist finds the Last Frontier. And in this much-civilized land he is that unusual paradox: both a cultured and a primitive man. With love for the wildlife that he studies, and with songs and poems in his heart, he has returned, hundreds or even thousands of years, to his hunter-trapper ancestors to learn the language of the sign —the trail in the dust, the lone feather, the traces of wild fur on the tree — that tells him what animal has passed there, what it fed upon, and where it has gone. But when he crushes the grass under his feet, it springs up again, and there is no blood under the tracks."

— John Terres, From Laurel Hill to Siler's Bog: The Walking Adventures of a Naturalist

Mason Farm Biological Reserve (MFBR) is located east and south of the North Carolina Botanical Garden's display gardens and Education Center. Access is by permit only, available at the Education Center reception desk. Sensitive research projects are ongoing at Mason Farm Biological Reserve, so NO PETS are allowed.

Read about the history and future of Mason Farm Biological Reserve in this presentation (PDF) by Johnny Randall, Director of Conservation Programs.

The Mason Farm Biological Reserve (MFBR) protects natural areas, supports academic research and public education, and is a place for contemplation and appreciation of the natural world. MFBR and contiguous undeveloped tracts create an approximately 900-acre natural area that connects with the 41,000-acre New Hope Game Lands to the south. MFBR proper is 367 acres and contains a combination of forests and old fields that support approximately 800 species of plants, 216 species of birds, 29 species of mammals, 28 species of fish, 28 species of reptiles, 23 species of amphibians, and 67 species of butterflies. In fact, more different species of animals have been recorded at the Reserve than in any other comparably-sized area in the entire Piedmont. To see photos of plants, birds, butterflies, other insects, amphibians, reptiles and mammals at the Reserve, check out Project Noah. The site lists the common and scientific names of flora and fauna, and usually some factual information.

photo of a tree at Mason Farm

The most ancient forested site is Big Oak Woods, a 65-acre hardwood bottomland. We call this a forest of continuity, as it has been continuously forested since before European settlement that has never been clear-cut or plowed. This forest, however, has been used as a woodlot and cattle have no doubt grazed and found shelter. Some of the larger white oaks exceed 300 years of age.

The old fields have been continuously open since before the Civil War and are now being rehabilitated to prairie-like habitats that range from wet meadows to drier Piedmont prairies. The NCBG staff are using a combination of fire and mowing in order to maintain the fields in an early successional state.


The Mason Farm land was received by the University in 1894 by bequest of Mary Elizabeth Morgan Mason, one of the last descendants of the Morgan family, who had settled in this southeast corner of Orange County in the 1740s. Largely undisturbed since that time, much of the area has now reverted back to woodlands. Some of its forests are now at least 150 years old, with some trees exceeding 300 years in age.

photo of the cemetery at Mason Farm

An old cemetery at Mason Farm

During the 1960s and 1970s, several portions of this tract were set aside specifically for biological uses by the UNC Board of Trustees, and Mason Farm Biological Reserve was officially established in 1984. Today the area is administered by the North Carolina Botanical Garden as both a natural area and biological field station.

Access to the Reserve is available by special permit to researchers, university classes, natural history groups, and the public. Annual permits and materials interpreting the Reserve's farm roads and trails are available at the Education Center. For further information, call 919-962-0522 or email North Carolina Botanical Garden director of conservation programs Johnny Randall. Visitors are asked NOT to bring dogs to Mason Farm. Please note visiting Mason Farm Biological Reserve may require fording a stream with your vehicle. Depending on the stream depth, crossing may be dangerous and prevent visiting the site.

For occasional tours of Mason Farm Biological Reserve and other natural areas, check our Guided Tours and Hikes page.

Updated on February 15, 2017 at 01:00:58 pm.