Research to explore effects of iconic horses on habitat of Canadian island

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A Parks Canada team member installs a trial exclosure fence in preparation for the Fences in the Sand research project on Sable Island National Park Reserve. Photo: CNW Group/Parks Canada

A major project on Canada’s Sable Island will include research into the effects of its iconic wild horses on the habitat.

Sable Island is a beautiful but remote island which lies about 175km southeast of the closest point of mainland Nova Scotia in the Atlantic Ocean. It is home to more than 500 wild horses.

The unique herd, legally protected since the 1960s, has been living freely on the windswept sandy island since the mid-1700s when it is believed they were seized from Acadians by the British and relocated to the island.

The island was declared a National Park Reserve in 2013, making it Canada’s 43rd national park.

The long, narrow island comprises dynamic rolling sand dunes and is not only home to the wild horses, but also the world’s largest breeding colony of grey seals, and other unique species, such as the Sable Island sweat bee, that are found nowhere else on earth.

The Canadian Government has announced a C$682,000 project to protect important habitats on the island and better understand the influence of the wild horses on its ecosystems.

The funding will allow Parks Canada and the Sable Island Institute to launch a collaborative study, called Fences in the Sand, in which a series of small fenced areas will be installed to exclude horses from selected sites on the island to help provide new knowledge about the island habitat.

The project team will install nine fenced exclosures, each one hectare in size.

A horse on Sable Island.
A horse on Sable Island. Photo by WCVM Today on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Scientists will collect and analyze data to understand direct and/or indirect influences of horses on dune erosion, ecological integrity of freshwater ponds (including rare plants, water quality, and invertebrates), and rare species and their habitats (including Roseate terns, Ipswich Sparrows and rare or endemic insects).

The project will also support the development of interpretative material designed for virtual visitors so Canadians can learn more about the Fences in the Sand project and the importance of ecological integrity in managing national parks like Sable Island National Park Reserve.

Researchers hope to build their understanding of the unique site over the five years of the project so that all elements of the ecosystem, including the horses, can be effectively protected.

The efforts will better inform the long-term management of the island park’s natural and cultural heritage, while monitoring and implementing measures for protection in support of conservation.

Sable Island is one of Canada’s furthest offshore islands. Although uninhabited, it has a rich human history stretching back to the 1500s, including shipwrecks, life-saving stations, and over a hundred years of weather monitoring.

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