The Conway Sandhills
Conway Sandhills, Prince Edward Island (Photo by John Sylvester)
The Conway Sandhills are part of a 50-kilometre-long sand dune and wetland complex on the north shore of western Prince Edward Island. They stretch from Malpeque to Jacques Cartier Provincial Park, west of Alberton (the Hog Island, Conway and Cascumpec sandhills). This entire chain of dunes is a high priority for the Nature Conservancy of Canada's (NCC's) work in Prince Edward Island.
Conway Sandhills at a glance
- Through five land purchases, NCC has protected 350 acres (142 hectares) at the Conway Sandhills. NCC is focused on securing additional properties in the area for conservation.
- The property contains four key targets for our conservation work: sand dunes, salt marshes, waterfowl and the piping plover, an endangered shorebird.
- Most of PEI's sand dune areas and off-shore islands were identified as important for conservation by the International Biological Program (1972). They are also identified in NCC's Northern Appalachians-Acadian Blueprint, as well as the Significant Environmental Areas Plan that is used by the Government of PEI to guide its work in securing the most significant natural sites.
- In addition to their natural features, the Sandhills are important for their archaeological and geological features. They also play an important role in Mi'kmaq cultural heritage and traditional use for camping, picking berries, hunting, gathering, medicinal plants, ceremonial uses and fishing many types of fish and shellfish.
- The connecting Conway Narrows, a body of water, is a major feeding area for migrating waterfowl.
- The Malpeque Bay and Cascumpec Bay are both Important Bird Areas, particularly for Canada goose, green-winged teal and American black duck.
- The Sandhills are covered and stabilized by American beach-grass, with patches of northern bayberry. The salt marsh is dominated by saltwater cordgrass and saltmeadaow cordgrass. Adjacent shallow water has sea wrack.
- The Gulf of St. Lawrence pinweed is a species of special concern and occurs on the Sandhills.
- Both the eastern and western ends of the sandy north shore of the Conway Sandhills have sheltered nesting piping plovers for many years. There are many other species of shorebirds that use the north and south beaches for feeding during migration.
- A wide sandy beach is in front of wind-swept sand dunes. Shorebirds run along the water’s edge, including the endangered piping plover. Migrating birds like black-bellied plover, red knot and sanderling can also be found here. Out in the waters of the Gulf, you can see northern gannets diving into the water for fish.
In addition to their ecological importance, the Conway Sandhills have played an important part in the lives of early island settlers. The Sandhills were not an easy place to make a living. Although to this day they serve as a natural buffer from storms, the changing and volatile nature of the sandspit created challenges unique to the area.
Aspiring fishermen built lobster canneries around water channels, only to have storms fill them in virtually overnight. Fishing boats and vessels always ran the risk of running aground in the shallow waters surrounding the Sandhills.
Despite this, the Sandhills were an integral location for local homesteaders who crossed over “the Narrows” to farm the marram grass when there was nothing else to feed cattle. They also travelled here to work in the lobster canneries that clustered around volatile channels. This was also a location to meet the rum-runners illegally importing alcohol from the French Isles of Saint Pierre and Miquelon during the prohibition.
With the removal of the remaining cannery buildings in mid-20th century, the Sandhills bade goodbye to a generation as a working landscape, and reverted back to a natural ecosystem. Now, NCC is helping protect waterfowl habitat and an iconic part of Maritime history and culture.
Our vision for the Conway Sandhills
This is one of NCC's prime areas of focus on Prince Edward Island. It is one of the most spectacular, unique, least disturbed and ecologically significant coastal dune ecosystem complexes in eastern Canada. We aim to conserve and steward the natural features of this unique area so that the area's ecological heritage survives for now and forever.
In 2013, NCC held its first ever Conway Sandhills Conservation Volunteers event here. A capacity crowd of people and news media took a boat over to see this area, many for the first time. In addition to cleaning up debris from the beaches, staff and volunteers tore down and removed some derelict shacks that were in poor condition. Used decades ago by some hunters and stranded boaters for temporary shelter during storms, these shacks were falling apart and were not part of the original natural heritage of this pristine sight.