Forest to farm and back to forest – 1500 to 2000

In 1500 AD, Brome County was covered with forest. There were small areas of Indigenous agriculture where the Abenaki people grew corn, squash and beans. Agricultural settlement of Brome County began in the late 1770s with the arrival of settlers from Britain. The new settlers were granted 100-150 acres on the condition that they cleared land for agriculture and built a house. Ownership of a farm was an impossible dream in Britain but a reality in Canada. 

Land clearing continued until the late 1880s. Many farms were established on land that was not suitable for farming. Brome County has poor soil and is also ‘blessed’ with steep slopes, lots of rocks and small fields. When hiking in the hills you will often see stone walls in the woods – proof that some hardy pioneer cleared the land and moved tons of rocks to permit some cultivation or the harvest of hay. 

Several generations of children were raised on these marginal farms but they were not productive enough to meet the growing socio-economic expectations of the owners.  Then came the two great wars. These caused serious disruptions in the lives of all involved. Young men and women left the farms to enlist. Many did not return to the family farm at the end of the wars – they died on the field of battle or found another career upon returning to Canada. 

Poor soil and new economic opportunities caused many marginal farms to be abandoned. The fields and pastures slowly reverted to forest. Now that much of the land cleared during the period 1770-1880 has gone back to forest other changes have taken place. We have a lot more habitat for forest-dependent species of wildlife. There are fewer farmers shooting bears and coyotes to protect their cattle and sheep. Deer hunting is still practiced but not as much as 50 years ago. 

Seeing a deer in the village of Knowlton was a rare event back in the 1940s. Now it is common to see a herd of 3-5 in the fields and wooded areas of the village. Lynx, coyotes, bears and moose are occasionally seen. 

We are not alone: US Forest Service historians report that in 1500 the State of New Hampshire was 95% forested. At the height of agricultural settlement in 1880 it was only 25% forested. By 1995 the forest had regenerated to cover 75% of the state.