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Cumberland's Horse History
Cumberland Island National Seashore is one of 7 Atlantic Coast barrier islands with feral, or wild, horses. While it is suspected that horses may have been brought and used by the early Spanish explorers, early English historical accounts of horses on Cumberland occur in the mid-1700s during the Colonial Period. During the Plantation Era of the late 1700s and early 1800s horses were used as livestock and work animals on the island. By the Civil War, it is believed that most horses were removed, with animals used for meat and subsistence by soldiers and freed-men. The herd rebounded in the early 1900s during the Carnegie era. During this time, new horses were released on the island and free-ranging herds were described around the island. While other Atlantic Coast herds have distinct genetic lines, recent studies conducted by the University of Georgia and University of Kentucky show Cumberland’s herd is related to several common domestic breeds, which is likely the result of post-1900 introductions.
Cumberland’s horse herd can be considered feral, free-ranging, and unmanaged. As such, it functions like a herd of wild animals (white-tailed deer, for example) and receives no food or veterinary care. The park conducts a census annually during the spring to monitor the population. Based on data from the last 12 years, the herd appears to be stable at approximately 175 animals. The majority of animals rate in the moderate to good condition categories. Most horses can be found utilizing the grassy habitats of the island like historic landscapes, fields, marsh, and dunes. The animals are a significant visitor attraction to park visitors. However, they are non-native large herbivores that are capable of causing damage to the island’s ecosystem through extensive grazing pressure on plants, trampling damage to marsh and dune systems, and competition with native wildlife for food.
Impact of the Herd
While beautiful, and amazing to see, the horses are not native to the island. As a result, they pose a threat to the natural habitat. Studies done in the 1980s showed the horses were over-grazing the island. In addition, their activity was trampling young plants. The horses are extremely popular with tourists, who love to see them wandering on the beaches and through the forests. For now, public opinion is in favor of keeping the horse population on the island. For now, the National Park Service has no plans to manage the herd.
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