The Chronicle Herald
January 30, 2006
by Tom Mason Special Features Writer
As Mahone Bay islands go, Sheep Island isn't large or particularly outstanding. Its shoreline can be circumnavigated on foot in about 10 minutes. It has never supported a population of famous boat builders or developed a reputation for buried treasure, and it is dwarfed by its immediate neighbours, Rous and Gifford islands. In fact, as its name suggests, Sheep Island's largest claim to fame is that it was one a place where local farmers pastured their sheep in the summer.
But for a group trying to preserve Mahone Bay's island heritage, the seven-acre island marked a beginning. In 2003 the Nature Conservancy of Canada purchased Sheep Island in an effort to protect its tenuous natural habit for generations to come. It's a purchase that the Mahone Islands Conservation Association (MICA) was firmly behind.
MICA Directors Nicole Ernst, Michael Ernst, Bryan Palfreyman, Sherrill Harrison,
Dale Rafuse and Sherry Swinamer view Mahone Bay islands.
photo: Tom Mason
"The purchase of Sheep Island happened just as we were getting our organization off the ground," says MICA chair Michael Ernst. "We got involved in cleaning up the island, but that's the extent of our involvement so far."
Instead, MICA went one better, teaming up with the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources to purchase the adjacent Andrews Island, near the mouth of Mahone Bay harbour.
"We're currently working with Natural Resources to draw up a stewardship plan for the island," says Ernst.
Sheep Island and Andrews Island are located in a controversial part of the bay. A development on nearby Strum Island sparked recent protests by conservationists and led directly to the formation of MICA in 2003. The group has mushroomed since its first town hall-style meeting; today MICA boasts over 700 dues-paying members, mostly South Shore residents.
As a sheltered, enclosed bay containing a large archipelago of islands, Mahone Bay is relatively unique in Canada. The more than 300 islands make up over 800 hectares of land that provides protected nesting areas for bird species like the great blue heron, the double breasted cormorant, the Atlantic puffin, the peregrine falcon and the endangered roseate tern.
About 90 percent of Mahone Bay's islands are privately owned, dating back to the days when land grants were apportioned to the early settlers in the area. Farmers in Lunenburg County were attracted to islands because they were mostly fertile drumlins that were perfect for raising livestock without the need for fences. At the same time, island setters were close to the fishing grounds.
In recent years, many of Mahone Bay's islands have come under pressure due to rapid development. Most are privately owned and are being subdivided as popular spots for summer retreats. One of the downsides is that many islands that were once popular recreation beaches are now off-limits to the public.
"That's one of our big concerns. We want to protect public access to island beaches," says Ernst. "A lot of what we're doing involves talking to landowners. Most owners are very good. They don't have a problem letting picnickers use the islands."
The other part of MICA's mandate involves protecting or buying islands, whenever possible, for posterity. MICA is working to encourage island landowners to consider endowing island properties to the association in their wills or allowing easements for public use. "One thing we don't want to do is make landowners nervous that we're going to come in and force them to do things our way," says Ernst. "We want to work together with landowners to preserve the Mahone Bay islands for all of us."
MICA is now in negotiation to purchase another island, Backman's Island, that is currently for sale. "We are also talking to other landowners, but their islands aren't on the market, so I can't say who they are," says Ernst.
Purchasing prime island real estate in Mahone Bay requires considerable capital. MICA has already had a great deal of success in its fundraising efforts including three recent dinner art auctions that raised a total of $50,000. The group has also run a successful pledge campaign.
MICA's web site is at www.mahoneislands.ns.ca
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