It’s a warm and breezy mid-September day on Borgles Island. The wind kicks up beach sand on the shore of a small cove, which is surrounded by a rocky headland and a green canopy of softwoods.
Bogs and other habitats beyond those trees are home to a variety of sea and forest birds, said Nicole Arsenault, who sits munching an apple in a sheltered corner of the cove with a group of tourism operators, bloggers and other media types. We’re on a picnic break during a tour of Eastern Shore islands organized by Nova Scotia Nature Trust.
“Every coastal habitat found in Nova Scotia is found on these islands,” said Arsenault, community outreach co-ordinator for Nature Trust, which is dedicated to protecting the hundreds of islands that dot the ocean in this area through its 100 Wild Islands campaign.
“Rare birds are breeding here, shorebirds and songbirds and seabirds are using these places as feeding areas, as nesting areas and their homes. Some of these birds are imperilled and at risk.”
The islands are also home to eagles, osprey, sea turtles, porpoises and seals, as well as globally rare plants and lichens.
Arsenault admits it’s an ambitious effort to protect what amounts to more than 250 kilometres of shoreline and over 7,000 acres of land stretched over a 30-kilometre archipelago.
“But really,” she said, gesturing to indicate the pristine beauty of the 350-acre island, “how could you turn it down?”
The media tour has been organized to promote Friends of the Wild, a fundraising effort that represents the latest step in the trust’s 100 Wild Islands conservation project.
En route to Borgles Island, we’ve stopped at Hardwood Island, which was once covered by softwoods but now stands bare thanks to tree-killing guano produced by cormorants that once frequented the island. But those fallen trees now provide a valuable nesting area for endangered eiders, Arsenault said.
The boat trip (piloted by Brian Murphy of Murphy’s Camping on the Ocean) also includes a stop at Ship Rock Island, which is favoured by climbers for its sheer rocky headland. That rock face also came in handy during the First World War, when the military used it for cannon target practice.
“It’s all represented here. We’ve got beaches, rocky shores, rocky headlands, bogs, barrens, coastal boreal forests,” which, Arsenault noted, are classified as temperate rainforests as a result of the number of rain and fog days that come with life on the Eastern Shore.
There are 282 islands between Clam Harbour and Mushaboom Harbour, with seven (including Borgles) that are over 200 acres in size, Some are so large they contain their own freshwater lakes.
The trust has raised $7 million over the past several years in its 100 Wild Island campaign, which most recently included a $300,000 donation from Halifax Regional Municipality. The trust works with private landowners, many of whom have donated the land outright or entered into property easement agreements that ensure the land will be protected from development or adverse activities. Last June, the province approved legislation that protects Crown-owned islands along the Eastern Shore down to Liscombe.
About 80 per cent of the targeted islands now have been protected, Bonnie Sutherland, executive director of Nova Scotia Nature Trust, told the tour participants before they set out on the water Wednesday. (Another tour that included Halifax Mayor Mike Savage was conducted Thursday.)
“It’s the first sort of milestone,” Sutherland said, “because the other part of what we do is that we promise to protect land forever. So acquiring it or getting it under some sort of protection is the first step, but then there’s the forever part, which is actually the harder part.”
The latest step of the campaign launched Thursday addresses the long-term sustainability aspect of the campaign, Sutherland said.
“The Friends of the Wild is about engaging a much broader community because we need more people to understand why this is so special, why it’s so significant and how they can be part of shaping its future.”
The trust hopes to broaden its support network through social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Youtube. Where the acquisition of the islands depends on large land or monetary donations, the Friends of the Wild campaign will seek all ranges of donations.
“Now we have to start answering the questions, ‘How do we manage these islands so people can come and enjoy them but not destroy them,’ “ Sutherland said. “We’re now looking at the phase of doing that work to understand . . . which islands can sustain what kind of use, where are the areas we need to protect, at least seasonally, where are birds nesting so we don’t have kayakers traipsing through.”
The trust will also work with the local community to make sure the areas they love are still available for access, Sutherland said. Another focus will be recruiting more volunteer stewards to keep watch over these natural treasures.
Back on Borgles Island, Nicole Arsenault takes out a development map of the island that proposed a golf course, air strip and residential area. The idea was floated by a developer about 10 years ago but the scheme collapsed amid the 2008 economic crash.
For Arsenault, the map is a potent reminder of why she and the rest of the Nature Trust staff and volunteers do what they do.
“There are some places like this that are just so special that we need to set them aside for nature to just do its thing.”