Photo by Betty Campbell
by Christine Hanrahan
Set amidst the farms and small settlements of eastern Ontario, approximately 60 kilometres east of Ottawa, is the magnificent Larose Forest, still largely unknown to many naturalists. Covering roughly 10,540 hectares (26,000 acres) it is the largest forest in this part of eastern Ontario and its significance, therefore, cannot be underestimated. Containing a complex of wetlands, riparian thickets, small openings, and mixed deciduous and coniferous growth it provides an oasis for a diversity of wildlife species, particularly those needing large continuous tracts of forest. Bisected by trails and unpaved forest roads, Larose Forest offers tremendous recreational and nature viewing opportunities. However, proposed development in a portion of the forest is raising fears for the future of the entire area.
The Prescott-Russell sand plains underlie much of the Larose Forest and the area is drained by both the Ottawa and the South Nation Rivers and tributaries. Elevation is 6184 m above sea level, thus the terrain is generally flat with only a few small ravines or gullies (OMNR, n.d.). When the vast Champlain Sea receded about 9,000 years ago, it left widespread deposits of Leda clay in its wake along with scattered islands of sand, remnants of the broad river deltas formed when water from the Great Lakes swept into this inland sea. In time forests grew and spread across the land. No doubt the primary forests of this area were composed initially of spruce, poplar and tamarack species, with later additions of pines, particularly red pine on the sandy soils. The trees would have been of impressive size in this pre-logging era. Fires, windfalls, and browsing by animals, were the principal agents of change, along with clearings created by small populations of native peoples. Even the incursions of fur-traders would have had little overall impact on the forests. It wasn't until the late 18th century that real change began.
The sound of the lumberman's axe was the death-knell for the great trees, downed to feed the insatiable demand by the Royal Navy and others for timber. By the middle of the 1800s most of the best and biggest trees had vanished, and it wasn't long before lumber mills began processing the smaller trees left behind when the choice timber was cut. About this time, mid-19th century, settlers began clearing land for farming. It was reasonable to assume that land which supported such a rich tree-cover would provide fertile soil for agriculture. But this was not the case. The sandy soils were no good for crops and the removal of tree cover along with man-made fires to ready the land for planting, created instead a bare landscape with conditions ripe for erosion. The problems arising from this were manifold and certainly unforeseen. Year round streams dried up or became intermittent at best (Reid 1979), and the land around present day Limoges and Bourget became known as the Bourget Desert. No doubt the land would have looked something like this photo, minus the trees.
Larose Forest - The Early Days
The problems caused by the "blow sand" desert greatly concerned officials in the Counties of Prescott and Russell. A plan developed during the 1920's by Ferdinand Larose, the local Agricultural Representative for the Counties, was both simple in purpose and breathtaking in extent. He proposed no less than the replanting of the once extensive forests. He believed that reclaiming the land this way made eminent sense for not only would it halt the erosion and protect water resources, but it would provide a valuable crop, generate employment, and serve as a demonstration area for good reforestation practices (Reid 1979). The forest was fittingly named after Mr. Larose to honour his remarkable achievement.
The United Counties of Prescott and Russell (UCPR) entered into a formal agreement with the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests (now Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources). The Counties purchased the land from private landowners and the Department assumed management responsibilities (Reid 1979). In 1928 the first 40 hectares were planted in Red Pine to help erosion control. Planting continued through the 1970's with millions of trees going into the ground, mostly White Pine and White Spruce in addition to the Red Pine. Poplar, Birch and other deciduous trees were later added to the mix. According to Reid (1979) approximately 1 million trees a year were planted in the 1940's and 1950's. By the 1970's much of the land had been re-forested and planting was reduced to about 200,000 trees a year. The counties continued to acquire more land adding approximately 400 hectares a year between 1945-1956 (Reid 1979), until the present size of 10,540 hectares was reached.
In 1989 Larose Forest, the second largest planted forest in southern Ontario, won the first "Ontario's Forest of the Year" award, presented by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) to recognize the significance of forests and the people who work in them.
The Forest Today
The forest we see today has changed considerably from the early years. Clear cuts have created openings allowing regeneration by a multitude of other tree and shrub species. The original straight lines of the plantation can still be seen in places, but far more significant, from a naturalist's point of view, is the flourishing mixed forest of softwood and hardwood with a heavy undergrowth of shrubs and herbaceous vegetation. Logging continues, but on a much reduced scale and until recently was mostly, but not always, done with horses. Increasing recognition over the years of the forest's importance for wildlife and for recreational pursuits has modified the way management plans have been developed. Larose has always been a multi-use forest, with logging, recreational users and wildlife sharing the area with reasonable success.
The forest is changing in other ways too. In 2000, the United Counties of Prescott and Russell took over management of the Larose Forest from the OMNR. In November 2001 they released the "Larose Forest Strategic Plan" which said all the right things about the forest being "a natural reserve and a historical heritage for Prescott and Russell which must be protected for the future." The forest is also designated as "significant woodland" in the UCPR Official Plan.
Habitat is defined by Benyus (1989) as: "an animal's home, a place where it finds what it needs to survive. A liveable habitat should offer a tolerable climate, a varied terrain, ample space, and a dependable supply of food and water. It should have safe places for feeding, playing, hiding, resting and raising young. A habitat, in effect, is the sum total of an animal's everyday needs."
Natural forests are usually explained as those which have evolved with no human assistance or modification, in contrast to plantation forests with their widely-spaced rows of single-species trees, heavily managed for maximum growth. Such man-made forests have generally been considered ‘biological deserts'. However, if nature is allowed to take charge it isn't long before these forests develop the composition and structure of natural forests with a diversity of vegetation filling in clearcuts and open areas. Such is the case with many sections of Larose Forest today which has matured into a mixed forest of multiple species. With its complex of wooded areas, wetlands, riparian thickets, and edge habitat, this forest provides a viable and productive habitat (as defined by Benyus above) for a profusion of wildlife species. It would be criminal for us to dismiss Larose Forest as insignificant wildlife habitat simply because it began life as a man-made forest. The eastern Ontario cornbelt region has little in the way of tree cover, other than fencerows and small woodlots. Forests the size of Larose are rare and all the more precious for that rarity. The evolution of Larose from a planted to a natural forest continues and will continue, if it is allowed to do so.
Many schools and colleges use the Larose Forest for educational purposes, learning about forest ecology and the identification of tree species. The Gatineau based Mycologues Amateur de l'Outaouais make regular field trips to the forest because of its remarkable diversity of mushrooms.
As noted, while tracts of the original plantations remain, much of the area has matured into a diverse naturally evolving forest. In turn it attracts an abundance of birds dependent on large forests for nesting. The woods are home to species such as Goshawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Ruffed Grouse, Pileated Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Blue Jay, Eastern Wood Pewee, Hermit Thrush, Wood Thrush, Winter Wren. Golden-Crowned Kinglet, Brown Creeper, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-eyed Vireo, American Redstart, Ovenbird, and Evening Grosbeak (for a complete list of birds see http://www.ofnc.ca/conservation/larose/birds.html). Many of these are species which require large, unbroken tracts of forests for nesting success. The abundance of birds, both in terms of species and of numbers, found within this forest is astonishing and certainly unexpected. The provincially rare Red-headed Woodpecker has been reported several times recently in the forest. This woodpecker is listed as a Species of Special Concern by COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) and as a Species at Risk by OBAR (the Ontario Birds at Risk Program).
Larose forest is one of the few places in eastern Ontario to contain a sizeable moose population which is an extraordinary feature of the site. However, in the last few years numbers have declined for reasons not yet understood, according to an OMNR biologist. Certainly it is reasonable to assume that development will only worsen the situation with fragmentation of the large forest tracts moose require. Other mammals include deer, racoon, fox, skunk, squirrel (both gray and red), Chipmunk and other small rodents, beaver, muskrat, coyotes, fisher, and the occasional black bear.
Many of the shrubs and trees are an important food source for wildlife. Cones of the various conifers are eaten by squirrels and by birds such as crossbills and finches. The seeds of ash, birch, maple, alder, and others and the nuts and catkins of beaked hazel feed numerous songbirds and mammals, while fruit from cherries, dogwoods, serviceberry, amongst other woody plants, are consumed by a variety of wildlife species.
Approximately 25% of the forest is covered by wetlands largely created by beaver damming streams and smaller wet areas. These wetlands, of varying sizes, provide a home and feeding area for various species of wildlife including browsing moose, dragonflies such as Common Green Darner and Common Whitetail, Green Frogs and Leopard Frogs, Beaver, Muskrat, Pied-billed Grebe, Great Blue Heron, Sora and Virginia Rail, American Bittern, and several species of waterfowl. Riparian thickets around the wetlands and along the many sloughs, provide additional habitat, especially for nesting songbirds such as Alder Flycatcher, Common -Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Swamp Sparrow, and Song Sparrow. Many new Wood Duck boxes are easily visible in some of the wetlands. These were constructed in the fall of 2002 as part of a Bog-to-Bog workshop marking the signing of an agreement between the Wetland Habitat Fund and United Counties of Prescott-Russell to enhance the wetlands of Larose. Eventually a couple of hundred boxes will probably be erected in the area (P. Boileau, personal communication).
Several wetlands are of a significant size. One of the biggest lies along the north side of the Clarence-Cambridge Boundary Road. Here extensive willow thickets and cat-tails are interspersed with standing dead trees, nest sites for Tree Swallows and perches for Eastern Kingbirds and others. Another large wetland occurs east of Drouin Road (south from Cheney) where it enters the forest just south of the gun-club property.
The multitude of forest roads, tracks and trails criss-crossing the area provide excellent edge habitat inhabited by a diversity of fauna. This is where butterflies and many other insects are mostly to be found, and from where it is easier to spot birds as they feed and perch along the openings. In the summer of 2003 Dun Skipper, Great Spangled Fritillary and Hummingbird Moths seemed to be particularly abundant along these edges, particularly in wet areas where the non-native Purple Loosestrife attracted large numbers of species. Many of the plants found in these areas provide food for wildlife. Seeds from goldenrods, asters, grasses, hog-peanuts, Jewelweed, clovers and other plants, are eaten by a variety of birds and mammals. Nectar from plants such as Jewelweed and Common Milkweed feed bees, hummingbirds and butterflies, while the vegetation is eaten by various mammals.
Flora and Fauna Surveys
To the best of my knowledge, few if any systematic surveys of the forest's flora and fauna were conducted until recently. An exception was the work done during the first Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas (1981-1985). However, it was not specifically noted which species were found in the forest and which in adjacent areas. During the current Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas (2001-2005) I am surveying this area and keeping separate notes for breeding species found in Larose Forest. I'm also collecting data for non-breeding species in the forest. During the spring and summer of 2004, Eleanor Thomson did an extensive vascular plant survey of the forest which combined with previous data brings the total number to 527 species found (see Survey of vascular plants of Larose Forest). Future surveys will undoubtedly add even more species. I have been doing butterfly surveys, and 42 species have been found as of summer 2004 (Butterflies of Larose Forest). No survey of reptiles and amphibians, or other insects has yet been done. There is much more yet to be discovered and recorded in the Larose Forest.
Over 160 kilometres of unpaved forest roads, trails, tracks and foot-paths cris-cross the Larose Forest; some are well-used, others are overgrown, many offer solitude and peaceful exploration. The Friends of Larose Forest maintain some of the foot-paths and the Larose Ski Committee grooms them for skiing. Dog-sledding, horseback riding, cycling, hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, canoeing and nature viewing all take place within the forest. For the dedicated hiker or cyclist, the network of trails offers enough scope for a full day of either pursuit, with more left for a later date. Walking is the best way to explore the area, and since the terrain is generally flat, walking is easy. The primary forest roads are driveable making it simple to access the forest and select one of its myriad trails. Some of the scenery is breathtaking, much is beautiful. At times it is easy to forget that busy farms and towns surround the forest. The vistas presented are often more reminiscent of remote northerly areas. Birding can be exceptionally good, and when the birds are quiet there are butterflies, dragonflies, other insects, and plants to look at, and there is always the hope of seeing a moose. I've never been that lucky; my closest encounters having been with fresh tracks and scat, but always there is the feeling that just around the next curve of the trail.
Off-roaders, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and snowmobiles also use the forest. Many of the ATV users I've met have been elderly folk put-putting slowly along the trails, clearly enjoying their forays into the forest. While I have no great fondness for ATVs and other off-road machines which are noisy, smelly and scar the earth, the forest is large enough that with a modicum of respect and common sense all recreational pursuits can be accommodated AND more importantly, wildlife can continue to share the land and thrive. I've concluded that I'd rather share the forest with the ATV crew than have no forest to share at all.
Hunting of moose, deer and small animals such as rabbits and grouse occurs, so it is wise to find out when the seasons take place and exercise caution if you visit during these times.
Acknowledgements: Thanks first and foremost to Ghislaine Rozon, of the Friends of Larose Forest, who brought the issue to the attention of the OFNC, and who has kept us informed every step of the way. She has worked tirelessly for the protection of this forest. Many thanks also to Pierre Boileau who very patiently answered my many questions and provided me with maps and literature about Larose Forest.