Excitement was palpable as our ship anchored next to Sable
Island. But, before we could board Zodiacs to go ashore, our
expedition leader gave us strict instructions. “Empty any plant
material from your pockets and cuffs. Wash your footwear
with brushes in the water troughs at the back of the ship so
that you don’t transport seeds and organisms to the island.”
Walking on Sable Island is very different from hiking in
popular national parks. There are no marked paths. No trail
signs. No wooden steps or railings. Tominimize impact on the
fragile environment, our group of just over 100 was divided
into smaller groups, based on interests and physical abilities.
We could choose from short, medium or long tours. All were
interesting because the guides discussed Sable Island’s geology,
flora, fauna and history as we walked.
We selected the two-hour loop hike up to Bald Dune and
back. Located in the middle of Sable Island at a height of 28
metres, it’s the highest point. Our feet sunk into the soft sand
as we climbed the tawny sand dune. The hike wasn’t difficult,
though, because we stopped frequently to observe birds and
horses – including a frolicking foal running circles around
its grazing mother.
The panorama from the top of Bald Dune encompassed North
Beach, where we had landed, as well as South Beach, the ridge
of rolling, vegetated sand dunes along the length of the island
and bands of wild horses grazing on the heath. Although it was
very windy, the air was so clean that we savoured each breath.
Why is there so much sand on Sable Island? (Even its name,
, means sand in French.) Our guide explained that
the sand was originally deposited by rivers from retreating
glaciers. The 42-kilometre island refuses to stay in one place.
Currents, waves and wind constantly shift the sand.
When we descended to the interior vegetated area, Parks
Canada manager Jonathan Sheppard instructed us to stay
together. “Walk in a single file on horse paths to minimize
your footprints.” He reminded us of the park’s policy of no
interference with the horses that were grazing around us.
Canada’s Jane Goodall
Zoe Lucas, who lives on the island for several months annually,
accompanied us and answered our questions about the horses.
What Jane Goodall is to chimpanzees, Zoe Lucas is to Sable
Island horses. Both have devoted their adult lives to research
and both are ardent advocates for the species which they’ve
According to Zoe, the population of free-ranging horses is
approximately 500, but she has seen numbers fall to as low as
150 after a severe winter. “It’s a struggle for them to survive
in winter because the vegetation dies back and it’s of a poorer
quality,” she said.
Zoe explained that the story about Sable Island horses being
shipwreck survivors is a myth. A Bostonminister introduced
them to the island in 1737 and 1738. Thomas Hancock (who
transported expelled Nova Scotia Acadians to New England
colonies) shipped five dozen of their horses to Sable Island in
1760. Between 1801 and the late 1940s, several horses were
rounded up for sale in Halifax.
In 1960, people who believed that the horses were causing
ecological damage to Sable Island created a proposal to harvest
the animals for pet food. In response, thousands of children
wrote letters to PrimeMinister John Diefenbaker, asking him
to save the horses. One letter-writer said: “Instead of sending
them to the glue factory, they should be as free as the wind.”
In 1961, the Diefenbaker government legally protected Sable
Island’s horses under the Canada Shipping Act. Since then, the
population has been genetically isolated. When Sable Island
National Park Reserve was established, Parks Canada began
managing the feral population of horses as a wild species.
Because the horses are protected, you can’t touch them,
harass them or even provide veterinary care if they are sick.
To prevent them from becoming habituated or expecting
treats from people, Parks Canada requires visitors to stay at
least 20 metres from them. During our visit, the horses were
nonchalant, grazing and living their lives as if we were not
even there. We occasionally heard them vocalize – mares
nickering to their offspring, a solo horse neighing and two
males challenging each other with aggressive screams.
Zoe Lucas, researcher
Walking across the beach runway
A family band of wild horses
Climbing up Bald Dune