top of page

Annapolis Valley Sand Barrens

What are the Annapolis Valley Sand Barrens?

The Annapolis Valley Sand Barrens are sandy areas that are  low in nutrients, slightly acidic, and dry. While these conditions make it tough for some plants to grow, the same conditions are perfect for certain rare and unique species. These sandy areas were left behind by glaciers thousands of years ago!  While we have some understanding of how these ecosystems form and some of the things that live there; we've had less success coming up with a name.  Different people around the world have different names for the same ecosystem, including Sand Barrens, Atlantic Coastal Heathland, and Sandplain Heathland! 


The terms barrens and heathlands are often used interchangeably.  Heathlands are extensive areas dominated by plants called heaths.  Heaths are a group of related plants that belong to the family Ericaceae. Plants in this family are typically found in acidic, infertile soils. Some of the more well-known plants in this family include blueberries, cranberries and rhododendrons. 


The Atlantic Coastal Plain is a region of relatively flat land found along the Atlantic Coast from Florida to Southern Maine, extending into Nova Scotia. This land is covered in sediments that have collected over millions of years from coastal marine waters and rivers draining from the Appalachian Mountains.  At the end of the last glacial period (about 10,000 to 14,000 years ago), the sea level was about 100 metres lower than it is today, exposing a  land bridge connecting southwest Nova Scotia and Massachusetts. This land bridge allowed for wildlife to migrate overland. As a result, we can still find rare species in Nova Scotia that are also found in similar habitats in New England. The term Sandplain Heathland is used to describe sand barrens within the Atlantic Coastal Plain region.


Examples of sand barrens landscapes

Why are the Annapolis Valley Sand Barrens important to us?

We are currently working with a number of amazing scientists and researchers to gain a better understanding of the ecology of the Annapolis Valley Sand Barrens. Some of the things that we know so far include:

  • This ecosystem plays a role in recharging and filtering ground water and helps to regulate water levels in the rivers that flow through it

  • Most of this ecosystem has been lost over time, with estimates as high as 93% loss in the Annapolis Valley

  • It is a globally rare and threatened ecosystem

  • This ecosystem provides habitat for several rare species and species at risk in Nova Scotia

  • This ecosystem is home to many humans who depend on ecological goods and services to support their livelihoods and to contribute to their quality of life

We need your help to learn more about the Annapolis Valley Sand Barrens...

Common Nighthawk, Ronnie D'Entremont.jpg
Pine Barren Golden Heather, Ian Manning.
Eastern Wood Pewee, Ronnie D'Entremont.j

(1) Rock Rose (Endangered in NS, (2) Common Nighthawk (Endangered in NS), (3) Eastern Wood-pewee (Vulnerable in NS), (4) Pine Barren Goldenheather, (5) Olive-sided Flycatcher (Threatened in NS), (6) Wood Turtle (Threatened in NS)

Help us learn more about the Annapolis Valley Sand Barrens...


Compared to other ecosystems, relatively little research and survey work has taken place in the Annapolis Valley Sand Barrens. We are still working with our partners to develop an accurate map of where the Annapolis Valley Sand Barrens can be found. 


We need help "ground truthing" the predictions that have been made through the mapping work completed by the NSCC's Applied Research Group. Ground truthing is a term used to refer to information provided by direct observation (i.e. empirical evidence) as opposed to information provided by inference.

Using iNaturalist to record species observations...

If you live in an area that may be part of the Annapolis Valley Sand Barrens, you can contribute to ongoing research by documenting the wildlife (plants, lichen, mosses, animals) around your property using iNaturalist

There are several species that are commonly associated with the Sand Barrens profiled on the iNaturalist project page and found on this webpage. We would like you to document as many of these species on your property as possible. 

If you are willing to take it a step further, you can try to document as many different species on your property as possible using iNaturalist. It is ok if you do not know the identity of the species you are making an observation for. iNaturalist will make some suggestions, and there is a community of naturalists who will help with identification based on the photos you submit. 

How to determine if your property is in the Annapolis Valley Sand Barrens

You can use this map link to zoom in, explore, and determine whether your property falls within the area predicted to be part of the Sand Barrens. We are hoping to collect data from as many properties in the yellow "sandy- well drained soils" and "peat" areas as possible. Observations from the surrounding areas are also valuable. 

BioBlitz sandbarrens challenge.001.png

The Sand Barrens BioBlitz Challenge

Download the PDF or make a printed copy to guide your exploration of the Sand Barrens. We have tried to select species that you should be able to identify in spring. We will make another version for summer observations. 

Exploring change over time...


One of the major unknowns surrounding the Annapolis Valley Sand Barrens, is the question of how these ecosystems change over time. To answer this question, researchers at NSCC Applied Research - COGS,  analysed historical air photos capture in 1955 provided by the Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forestry to track changes in land-cover. When we look at historical of present-day sand barren habitat, we learn that many of the best sand barren sites, were former agriculture sites! In the absence of fire, much of the area that was sand barrens in the 1950s, has grown in with pine trees. Check out this map to see how sand barrens, and land cover in general has changed in the Annapolis Valley. 


Building the foundation for community conservation in the Annapolis Valley Sand Barrens

We are currently working with a number of partners on a project that aims to better understand the Annapolis Valley Sand Barrens ecosystem and to use this improved understanding to engage stakeholders in the development of a community-based management strategy to guide long-term sustainable management and conservation of this rare and unique ecosystem. This is a long-term project that will continue to evolve over the years. If you are interested in being a part of this work, please let us know by sending an e-mail

Some of the activities that are currently underway include:

  • The development of a baseline biodiversity assessment, to gather existing data about the Annapolis Valley Sand Barrens

  • The development of a field guide to the Annapolis Valley Sand Barrens

  • Land-use change analysis, being led by the Nova Scotia Community College Centre of Geographic Sciences

  • Historical charcoal and pollen sample analysis 

  • The development of educational activities and programs for members of the public and local students

Much of this work is still in a preliminary phase. Stay tuned for updates. 

Thanks to our program funders:

Government of Nova Scotia (Canada).png
bottom of page