Sable Island’s wild horse population weathers Hurricane Fiona

Wild Horses Photo Courtesy of Sable Island Institute/Facebook

On Saturday morning, Hurricane Fiona collided with the East Coast of Canada. Wind speeds reached 179 km/h, Antigonish, N.S. recorded 200 millimetres of rain, and waves in the Atlantic Ocean peaked at 30 metres high. Homes were flattened, towns flooded, and thousands have been left without power.

One of the few groups to emerge unfazed by the hurricane is the wild horses of Nova Scotia’s Sable Island. “Late Friday afternoon the horses were still grazing as usual. They sought shelter during the storm and by mid-day Saturday they slowly came out from the dunes to continue their grazing,” said the Sable Island National Park Reserve in an update.

Sable Island is a 42-kilometre-long crescent of shifting sand dunes and long grass, located 290 kilometres off the coast of Halifax in the Atlantic Ocean. The island is operated by Parks Canada and plays host to researchers and visitors.

The island is also home to around 500 wild horses. The exact origin of the horses is unknown, but the most common theory is that they were taken from Acadians deported to the U.S. in 1760 and resettled on Sable Island to be used at a later date. No one came for the horses, though, and eventually, they grew feral.

The horses have had to adapt to a harsh, windy climate. With no tree coverage, Sable Island is exposed, leaving only beach grass and marram grass to cover the island’s surface. Over the years, there have been initiatives to plant trees on the island, but the only tree that’s managed to survive is a shrub-sized pine.

To deal with the climate, the horses have grown shaggy coats and manes, and have learned to dig shallow wells in the sand to access groundwater. There are also freshwater ponds the horses drink from on the western half of the island.

The horses live in small family groups with a dominant stallion, one or more mares, and their young foals, sticking within a territory of three square kilometres.

In 1960, the Federal Crown Assets Disposal Corporation put the horses up for sale with the intention of removing them from the island, but enough people wrote to then Prime Minister John Diefenbaker objecting to the sale, that he put an end to it, protecting the horses under the Canada Shipping Act. It’s now illegal for the horses to be touched or fed, and they don’t receive veterinary care.

Despite how well the horses have adapted, storms are still hard on the animals, and Hurricane Fiona managed to pummel Sable Island. “They find shelter from the wind and blowing sand in the lee of dunesthere are plenty of hollows and high dune slopes in inland areas, and depending on the wind direction, the horses also huddle on the beach at the base of the dunes,” the Sable Island Institute said in an update. Often the older horses will huddle around the younger ones, protecting them from the wind.

Once the storm had passed on Saturday, staff saw the horses emerge from the dunes and carry on with their routines as if nothing had happened.

The island’s buildings weren’t as lucky. Three Parks Canada employees and one Sable Island Institute researcher were holed up in the island’s station during the storm. “Our houses shook and we heard lots of banging with loose siding. Needless to say, like a lot of Maritimers, there was a lack of sleep that night. We were in regular contact with the mainland using a satellite telephone,” The Sable Island Park Reserve reported in its update.

The building lost siding and the storm damaged the roof, but no major catastrophes otherwise. There is a lot of debris around the station to be cleaned up and erosion to the dunes has prevented staff from taking vehicles out to check on the island’s beaches.

Visitor flights to the island have been cancelled until September 30 while staff complete urgent repairs and make a full assessment of the damage.

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