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“The timber of the Island is allowed to be much better than the like species of the neighboring parts of the Continent, being of a finer and closer grain and texture not so subject to shakes and defects; the pines, black birch, beech and maple are also larger than they are generally found on the adjacent part of the continent.”
John Stewart, An Account of Prince Edward Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, North America, 1806
While the destruction of majestic old growth forest takes place across the country, it is hard to picture woodlands on Prince Edward Island as anything but insignificant. There are no stands of huge trees, no threatened lynx, bear, marten or moose.
Yet this Island once had all of these and allowed their extinction, a loss many still feel deeply. Records are sparse as to what exactly was here when the Micmac tradition of living gently on this land ran up against the first settlers from Europe, but those that exist paint an impressive picture. In 1534, Jacques Cartier sent word back to the French king that he found trees “wonder-fully fair”, describing cedars, pines, white elms, ash, willows and many others unknown to him.
With the European settlement in the 1700’s came large-scale clearing of forests for farming and shipbuilding – white pine up to six feet in diameter, yellow birch unequaled in the region. Unfortunately, the best forests, which had built up the richest soils, quickly fell to axe and fire. Clearing peaked at about 80% of available land by the late 1800’s.
The Island has changed immensely since those times. Even from our incomplete accounts several birds, including the passenger pigeon and spruce grouse, no longer can be found. The pileated woodpecker has only recently returned and many insect-eating birds are here in far fewer numbers. Francis Bain, Island naturalist and author of Birds of Prince Edward Island, described the scene in 1891. Boreal chickadees were nearly as abundant as black-capped chickadees and cliff swallows, nighthawks and chimney swifts were common.
Today, many of the gulls, blue jays, American robins and grassland birds such as bobolinks and brown-headed cowbirds are much more common. Skunks and raccoons have been introduced, while cats and dogs are ever-present in both urban and rural areas.
Much farmland has reverted to early successional tree species, such as white spruce, that thrive in full sunlight. These trees are not growing on healthy forest soils – they often seeded into worn-out agricultural land. Many mixed wood forests on the Island have high percentages of short-lived species – poplar, red maple, and balsam fir. Stands of more valuable, longer-lived Acadian species face increasing pressure from harvesting and few will ever achieve old age. This is the legacy with which we have been left.