Orwell River in the woods

A special legacy

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

Save Article Share Tweet

Islanders should be feeling grateful for the recent donation of 100 acres of woodland to the Sir Andrew Macphail Homestead in Orwell. The descendants of Sir Andrew, spread out across North America, donated the land this summer through Environment Canada’s Ecological Gifts Program. It absolutely thrills me to have more protected woodland in the province in any location. But this one is special.

Since the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project started in 1991, I have been eyeing the neighbouring woodland.  I dreamed about the possibilities—extending our trail system, carrying out more restoration, adding rare species, creating new teaching areas. And now those dreams can come true.

The Orwell River runs through the property, which stretches from the Macphail Homestead to the Trans Canada Highway. The forest along the river was too steep to farm, though wood was definitely harvested in the past. The area is full of large old hemlock, white pine, yellow birch and red maple. You can find bald eagles and barred owls, red-backed salamanders and wood frogs, and all kinds of mammals along the way. There is a secondary stream that enters the river from Kinross, steeply sloped and cloaked in mosses and ferns.

The areas above the riparian zone are a mixed bag of fields and pastures that grew up in both native and non-native species. There are stands dominated by white spruce, and others by balsam fir. There are areas full of European mountain ash, and others with young white birch and red maple. It will take time and effort to restore these forests, but that work is what the Macphail Woods project has been focused on for almost thirty years.

I came upon an interesting bit of natural history when reading about the property. As it reaches the Trans Canada, the river turns into a salt marsh, which runs under the highway. In his 1929 book Skye Pioneers and “The Island,” Malcolm A. MacQueen wrote:

“The marsh lands along the river were of great value to the early settler for pasture. Farmers came from miles around and cut the rank marsh grass with scythes…Wild geese, ducks, brant, upland plover, curlews, yellowlegs, snipe, sandpipers, and other forms of wild game birds abounded to an extent that seems incredible today. Sea trout were also in abundance, as well as other varieties of excellent fish. Altogether it was a delightful spot.”

Ninety years later, I wonder about this spot that I regularly visit. While there are often lots of birds, especially Canada geese, it is interesting that MacQueen already noted a decline in populations, one that I’m reasonably sure continues to this day.

The Macphail descendants deserve a lot of credit for their vision and generosity. I have met many of them and they truly have a love for this area. The Sir Andrew Macphail Foundation, and especially Board member Doreen Huestis, were instrumental in securing the property for the benefit of all Islanders.

If anyone is interested in helping out with our work on this property, please let me know. We have created a management plan that will be posted on our macphailwoods.org website and you can contact me from there. We’re planning to start planting a mix of native species—including some rare shrubs, ferns and wildflowers—along the river in the spring, and to carry out the trail building and restoration work over the next few years. Our aim is to make the entire property “a delightful spot,, one that all Islanders will be take pride in.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.