Gault Nature Reserve, of McGill University, is a private reserve protecting 1000 hectares of natural primeval forests of the St Lawrence River valley. Located 35 km east of Montréal, it is situated at Mont Saint-Hilaire (one of the 10 Monteregian Hills), which rises to 411 m and overlooks the Rivière Richelieu.
Although its shape suggests otherwise, Mont Saint-Hilaire did not originate as a volcano. The mountain was formed instead as part of a series of plutonic intrusions some 130 million years ago into the sedimentary bedrock. The upwelling of magma never managed to break the surface as a volcano but instead cooled slowly as a mass of igneous rock enveloped by sedimentary rock it had melted and forced aside. The surrounding sedimentary layers have since been removed by erosion processes, including glaciation, revealing the igneous intrusion. Mont Saint-Hilaire is recognized as one of the world's MINERAL-collecting sites with more than 340 known types of minerals, of which over 40 are unique to the mountain.
The mountain's several peaks surround Lac Hertel (36 ha), which is drained by a small stream. Variations in altitude and climate produce a pattern of vegetation dominated by forests of pine, oak, maple, beech and birch. It has the last intact old growth northern coniferous-hardwood forest in the St Lawrence River valley. Animal species include 39 species of mammal (eg, skunk, fox, raccoon, porcupine, muskrat, squirrel and deer) and some 200 species of bird (eg, pileated woodpecker, warbler, hawk, Canada goose and peregrine falcon).
The Iroquois used the mountain until the 1700s, when French settlers began exploiting its timber and waterpower resources. After 1844, the Campbell family developed it as a tourist resort until 1913, when it was bought by Brigadier Andrew Hamilton GAULT. He protected its natural qualities and in 1958 bequeathed it to McGill University. Since then it has been managed for conservation, scientific research, education and recreation. In 1960 the mountain became a migratory bird sanctuary and in 1972, the Mont St Hilaire Nature Conservation Centre was created to manage public access to the mountain. In 1978 the Gault Estate and its immediate surroundings were recognized by UNESCO as Canada's first biosphere reserve. The province of Québec formally recognized Gault Nature Reserve (renamed in 2000) as a nature reserve on private land in 2004. The public has year-round access to the western half of the nature reserve, which includes more than 25 km of trails.
See also Protected Areas.