Fundy Dykelands and Wildlife

What Are Dykelands?

DYKELANDS ARE PREDOMINANTLY agricultural lands developed from rich salt marshes found mainly in the upper Bay of Fundy of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Occurring in areas of high tidal range, dykelands owe their existence to dykes constructed to keep out the sea. Prior to dyking, extensive salt marshes occurred at the mouths of tidal rivers and in other low-lying coastal areas. Saltmarsh plants helped to trap nutrient-rich sediments from the tidal waters on vast level areas which were ideal for development of agricultural lands.

A Short History

THE ACADIANS WERE DRAWN TO THE rich marshes of the Bay of Fundy over 300 years ago and designed and constructed many of the present-day dyke systems. They understood the high agricultural value of the marshes compared to the less fertile, forested uplands.

The dykeland farms of the Acadian settlers provided for their needs as well as giving a surplus for export throughout the eastern seaboard. After the Acadians were expelled by the British in 1755, they were replaced by the New England’s Planters, Yorkshire farmers, and the United Empire Loyalists. Each new group of settlers claimed new areas of salt marshes, which they used primarily for pasture and hay production.

Dykelands played a central role in Nova Scotia agriculture until the early 1920s. With the increasing use of the internal combustion engine replacing the need for horses, the demand for hay was greatly reduced. In subsequent years, low hay prices coupled with a loss of the labour force to wage the Second World War, reduced efforts in maintaining and rebuilding the dykes. By 1948 the dykes had deteriorated to such an extent that large tracts of dykeland had reverted once again to salt marsh.

In 1949, the Maritime Marshlands Rehabilitation Act was introduced by the Canadian government to prevent the loss of additional dykeland. From 1949 to 1970, over 30,000 hectares of dykeland were secured.

Prominent examples of dykelands include the Queen Anne's Marsh near Port Royal on the Annapolis Basin the Grand Pré marsh in King's County, and the Minudie Marsh in Cumberland County.

The Present

DYKELANDS STILL PLAY AN IMPORTANT agricultural role and today are used largely for the production of hay and pasture, corn and cereal crops, and sod. As they hold water late in the spring and are not well suited for fall ploughing, dykelands have a shorter season for cropping and maintenance compared to many other agricultural lands. However, they are naturally rich in nutrients, and are relatively flat and rock free. Research is ongoing to develop new techniques and crops for production on dykeland soils.

Dykelands As Wildlife Habitat

ALTHOUGH THEIR PRIMARY USE IS for agriculture production, dykelands and surrounding areas can be exceedingly important for wildlife. Dykelands are used by many species for short periods or year round. Hay meadows and vegetated drainage ditches on dykelands provide habitat for a community of marsh and grassland animals. These range from Meadow Voles and Shrews, Marsh Hawks and Kestrels, to deer, red foxes, and coyotes. Dykelands may also provide roosting sites for migrating shorebirds at high tide. The extensive dykelands at Grand Pré are one of two known nesting sites in Nova Scotia for the Short-Eared Owl. Marshy areas of dykelands provide habitat for many species associated with wetlands, including: Black Duck, American Bittern, muskrat, fish, beaver, and many species of insects.

The diversity of habitats in the vicinity of dykelands, including salt marshes, freshwater marshes, and tidal flats, as important in maintaining a wide range of species and complex biological interactions. This diversity in a localized area ensures that the loving requirements of numerous species are met. In addition, Fundy dykelands are located on the traditional migration routes of a wide range of bird species.


Cross section of a dyke and surrounding area.

Creating Waterfowl Habitat on Dykelands

Freshwater ponds and marshes may develop along the upland margins of dykelands. This occurs due to the slight natural slope of the original salt marsh - gently downward from the dyke to the uplands. Drainage ditches which are necessary to channel runoff, can also provide standing water habitat, particularly on abandoned or poorly-maintained dykelands.

Idle dykelands have long been recognized for their potential as habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. Since the mid-1960s, Fundy dykelands have been used for the creation of artificial wetland impoundments, thereby enhancing populations of waterfowl and other wetland wildlife. Dykeland soils, consisting primarily of marine wilts with a high nutrient content and capacity for retaining water, are ideal for creating freshwater impoundments. In many areas, abandoned dykeland has been acquired by government and private conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited Canada for wetland creation and management. Good examples of developed wetlands on dykelands are the Amherst Marsh in Cumberland County, and the Bellesisle Marsh along the Annapolis River. Because they are important staging and rearing areas for many species of waterfowl and other migratory marsh birds, dykelands with managed wetland impoundments are of national and international significance.

Artificial wetlands on dykelands enhance populations of more than just waterfowl. On the Belleisle Marsh in the Annapolis Valley, the number of species of breeding songbirds and amphibians has increased around artificial impoundments. American Bittern, Sora Rail, Spring Peeper, Wood Frog and Northern Leopard Frog have flourished since impoundment construction. The project also resulted in increased breeding populations of Black Ducks, Wood Ducks, and Ring-necked Ducks and muskrat.

Wildlife & Agriculture on Dykeland - A Model of Coexistence

FARMING WITH A VIEW TO CONSERVING wildlife can improve the wildlife potential of dykelands. For example, delaying haying on dykelands until July can have substantial benefits to local populations of breeding wildlife. Burning of dykelands, while a traditional spring practice in some areas, may have more negative effects on the land and the wildlife it supports than it has benefits.

Agricultural use need not conflict with wildlife use of wetlands on dykelands. Freshwater marshes on the lower-lying areas of dykelands have successfully coexisted with farmland, leaving most of the drier land for agriculture, Multi-use strategies for dykeland can reduce competition between agriculture uses and needs for wildlife conservation.

Belleisle Marsh in the Annapolis Basin is a model of integrated resource management for wildlife and agriculture. Purchased through funding made possible from North American Waterfowl Management Plan, it is an example of a wetland creation project which is integrated with agricultural uses. One-third of a former dykeland has been returned to wetland, one-third is left as rough cover allowed to regenerate naturally, and one-third is farmed. At Belleisle, wildlife and agriculture can coexist.

Other Uses

AGRICULTURE USE ASIDE, DYKELANDS in Nova Scotia protect over 600 residential and commercial buildings, 25 km of railway, 80 km of paved roads and t rails, and more than 120 km of power lines. The dykes and dykelands provide many hours of recreational activity including walking, birdwatching, hunting and trapping.

The Future of Dykelands

DESPITE THE IMPORTANCE OF DYKELANDS for agriculture and wildlife, they are facing increasing pressure to be developed for other human uses, including urban expansion, and siting of municipal facilities such as landfills.

In some unproductive or low-grade dykeland, the dykes are being allowed to deteriorate so the dykelands will return naturally to their former state as salt marshes. This restored salt marsh provides, once again, productive habitat for wildlife.

As we reach the end of this century, we have a better appreciation of the value of dykelands and the ways to manage them. While dykelands are still important for agricultural production, those that are not needed are being converted to wildlife habitat, or being allowed to return to their former state as natural salt marsh. These changes represent just another step in the dykelands' continuing evolution.

For More Information
Please Contact...

... your local office of the:
  • Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forestry;
  • Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture and Marketing;
  • Canadian Wildlife Services
    • Sackville, New Brunswick
    • (506)364-5044
  • Ducks Unlimited Canada
    • Amherst, Nova Scotia
    • (902)667-8726