Wild, Feral, Free-roaming: The Sable Island & Konik Horses

Two units in Global Perspectives in Equine Welfare have been dedicated to issues surrounding the management of wild/feral and free-roaming horse herds. The first unit was focused on the 2013 US government shutdown and how that impacted the herds managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The most recent unit has taken a broader perspective, looking at how herds are managed in other countries.

The management of these populations is an incredibly complex topic which demands the consideration of numerous, site- and herd- specific factors. The issues are further muddied by the varying opinions of well-intentioned wild horse advocates, the general public, scientists, veterinarians, and government bodies charged with the actual management of the animals, some of which I may tackle in a future post. But for now, I’ll keep things light and share a couple of example of free-roaming and feral horses, one from Canada and one from England.

Sable Island Horses: Life in “the Graveyard of the Atlantic” 
Image 1. Roberto Dutesco by Ingrid Bulmer

I am absolutely in awe of the Sable Island horses, of which I first became aware in 2008 through the documentary Chasing Wild Horses. The film follows photographer Roberto Dutesco on his second visit to the island to photograph the horses, in 2004. You can watch it here. And if you’re ever in NYC, be sure to visit his gallery. The larger than life photographs are incredible!

Sable Island is a 42 km (26 mi) long, 1.5 km (0.93 mi) wide sandbar located 160 km (99 mi) southeast of Nova Scotia, Canada, where the arctic stream and gulf stream meet, shaping the land. Covered in fog for about 200 days a year, it is a fragile, primitive landscape populated by over 400 feral horses, along with seals, birds, terrestrial insects, and the aquatic life in a small freshwater lake. It is estimated that 30 to 40% of Sable Island will eventually be lost to sea level rise, a projection based on a 3-metre rise.

Known exclusively as “The Sable Island Horses,” like the feral herds across the US, they cannot be classified as a breed. Rather, their origin is nearly impossible to link to any specific breed(s), as they are thought to be descendants of a wide variety of horses that arrived on the island, some possibly by shipwreck, of which there have been nearly 500 since the 16th century. The more popular theory, however, is that they were introduced to the island in the mid-1700’s, along with cows, sheep, goats and hogs when the British seized animals from the Acadians and expelled them from Nova Scotia. The idea was to let the horses fend for themselves and periodically harvest and sell them for a profit. Through the 1800’s the horses were used to patrol the shores of Sable Island for shipwrecks.

By 1950, biologists working on the island proposed they be removed. Being an introduced/invasive species, they were said to be damaging the ecologically sensitive land. The Canadian government formulated a plan to have the horses shipped to the mainland to either work in coal mines or be slaughtered for pet food. In the wake of this decision, schoolchildren across the country initiated a letter-writing campaign to the Prime Minister, urging him to spare the horses. In response, Prime Minister Diefenbaker declared full protection of the horses and amended the Canada Shipping Act to restrict access to Sable Island.

Today, the horses are the only terrestrial mammals on the island and they continue to be lawfully protected from any human interference. While other feral herds generally experience population increases of up to 20% per year, doubling every four or five years, growth on Sable Island is slower and more or less kept in balance by the severity of the winters and sparseness of the landscape.

The Konik Horse: Free-roaming ecological restoration
Konik Ponies ay Oare Marsh Nature Reserve.
Image 2: Konik Ponies at Oare Marsh Nature Reserve by Smudge 9000

Descendants of the Tarpan, Konik horses are being used across both continental Europe and the UK in ecological restoration efforts to manage and rewild a variety of landscapes. One example is Wicken Fen, a national nature reserve in the UK.

Launched in 1999, the Wicken Fen Vision aims to expand the reserve fifteen-fold over a 100-year period using a natural, sustainable management approach that will be flexible and adaptive in response to changes in the environment. As part of their regeneration efforts, Konik horses and Highland cattle have been introduced as key players in the restoration and ongoing management of the land. Their foraging and feeding behaviours, although they may consume the same types of vegetation, are different enough to facilitate the growth of wetland and grassland plants and create subtly different habitats across the landscape.

The animals are currently free to roam over a  247-acre (100-hectare) area, a range which will expand as new, adequately vegetated areas of approximately the same size become available and connected. A hardy, self-reliant, naturally free-roaming breed, Konik horses are well-suited for life on the fen and thrive on the available forage – grasses, sedges, rushes, scrub, brambles, thistles, docks, and nettles. Their temperament is such that they do well with minimal human intervention, yet are seemingly indifferent to the presence of humans in their vicinity. These particular horses were moved to the fen from a similarly managed nature reserve in the Netherlands.

How exactly do grazing animals affect restoration in their environment?

That depends on their density and feeding habits. Naturally, some areas will be grazed more than others, and conversely, there will be taller and denser patches of vegetation throughout. Grazing pressures will naturally fluctuate in response to population growth, however, as previously mentioned, new land will continually be added to the reserve, thereby dispersing the population over a larger area of land. Other ways in which the animals alter and influence the landscape are through the creation of well-trodden paths, dusty patches where they roll, and microhabitats of water-filled footprints and dung piles. These dung piles provide habitat for a variety of invertebrates and micro-fauna.

How are the herds managed?

Though primarily hands-off, a Grazing Warden oversees herd management with the assistance of volunteers and an on-call veterinarian. Animals are regularly inspected for internal parasites and signs of condition loss. Wicken Fen follows the Five Freedoms of animal welfare and the Grazing Warden monitors and records herd reproduction, deaths, and their impact on vegetation.


CBC News. (2014, Sep 4). In Depth|Sable Island: The wild horses’ history and future. Last updated Sep 10, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/sable-island-the-wild-horses-history-and-future-1.2755142 

Dutesco Art. (undated). The Wild Horses of Sable Island. Retrieved from http://dutescoart.com/the-collection/.

Harris, J. (2008). Chasing Wild Horses [Documentary]. Canada: Arcadia Entertainment.

National Trust. (2011). “Wicken Fen Vision: The Grazing Programme explained.” Retrieved from https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/wicken-fen-nature-reserve/documents/wicken-fen-the-grazing-programme-explained.pdf


Feature Image: Sable Island Horses “Love Bite” by Roberto Dutesco. Retrieved from https://haligonia.ca/roberto-dutesco-the-wild-horses-of-sable-island-photography-exhibit-opens-94241/

Image 1: “New York photographer Roberto Dutesco stands next to an image from his Wild Horses of Sable Island exhibit, at the Museum of Natural History in Halifax to Oct. 13” by Ingrid Bulmer. Retrieved from http://thechronicleherald.ca/artslife/1212924-sable-horses-inspire-new-york-photographer-s-exhibit-in-halifax

Image 2: “Konik Ponies at Oare Marsh Nature Reserve” by Smudge 9000. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/smudge9000/15456043575

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