How a restoration project aims to bring new life into an old P.E.I. forest

Staff and volunteers of a forest conservation initiative in Orwell, P.E.I., have embarked on a project to restore the biodiversity of a new section of Acadian forest. 

The work began shortly after the Sir Andrew Macphail Foundation was gifted an additional 40 hectares of land in 2019. The land was donated by descendants of Sir Andrew Macphail, adding to the 56 hectares of land the foundation already owns. 

Gary Schneider, project manager with the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project, said after decades of farming and agricultural use in the area the forest has lost some of its biodiversity, allowing certain species like white spruce, to take over.

“The upper areas where it was farmed are in bad shape like most Island forests so those are the the areas with a lot of white spruce, a lot of damage from Dorian,” Schneider said. 

So, staff and volunteers are making space for new growth to improve the health of the forest and create more habitats for animals to help the environment flourish.

‘This will really showcase good practices and I think people will learn from it and hopefully it’s a lesson for everybody on the Island that says we’ve got to care more about our forests and we can do something to help,’ says project manager Gary Schneider. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

It’s being done using a technique called patch cutting, where a small area of forest no bigger than 15 metres across is cleared and new shrubs, flowers, ferns and trees are planted in the patch. 

“It allows us the opportunity to plant a lot of later successional species to the Acadian forest, so hemlock, sugar maple, yellow birch, things like that.” 

Schneider said healthy trees or plants within the patches are left alone. So far, dozens of patches have been cleared and many new seedlings have been planted, most of them grown from seeds collected from across the Island. It’s a process that mimics what would happen to a forest if it were left completely alone for several hundred years, Schnieder said.

Staff and volunteers have been busy over the past year, patch cutting small areas of the forest and planting new shrubs, flowers, ferns and trees, like this white pine seedling. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

Their goal is to help speed up that process.

“Eventually it’s going to turn back into a lovely forest all the way, but we thought we can really jump start how this forest is becoming healthy again,” he said. 

Rare Island species being planted

Schneider said some of seedlings being planted include white pines, oak trees and a number of rare species found on P.E.I. 

“It’s really exciting to come to a place like this and be able to put in iron wood and witch hazel and hobble bush and all kinds of rare things,” he said. 

Sarah Langille has been helping with some of that work. She’s a student at Holland College studying wildlife conservation and working at Macphail Woods throughout the summer. She said being part of the project has opened her eyes to how many elements go into creating an Acadian forest.

Sarah Langille, a Holland College student completing her on-the-job training at MacPhail Woods this summer has been planting some of those rare seedlings and says the experience has taught her what goes into building a forest. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

“I get to learn about like how a forest is built and really just how much work goes into it and the diversity you need to support the different ecosystems and animals that would live there,” Langille said. 

She said restoring and protecting biodiversity in Island forests is how people can ensure they are preserved for many more generations to enjoy.

“The overall diversity of the forests we have here on P.E.I. is really important and can be used as a learning tool for future students and just the public in general.”

Trail system expanding 

Schneider said another benefit of the new property will be the expansion of Macphail Woods trails throughout the forest.

He said the goal is to double the length of the existing trail.

“For people to be able to come out and have a longer walk, that’s really useful for them.” 

He said he also hopes that people are inspired by the restoration work they see as they walk along the trails and recognize that the work being done today is for the benefit of future generations.

The work is being done to improve the overall health of the forest and create more habitats for animals. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

“Some of the trees native to the Acadian forest will grow to be 300, 400, 450 years old. So we’re not going to replicate that in our lifetime but we want to put the conditions in place that it can do that itself,” he said. 

“This will really showcase good practices and I think people will learn from it and hopefully it’s a lesson for everybody on the Island that says we’ve got to care more about our forests and we can do something to help.” 

Macphail Woods is having a volunteer planting day on Aug. 14, open to anyone who wants to help with the work.

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