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Managing Feral Horse Populations in North Carolina’s Rachel Carson Reserve

north carolina, horses, nature

As part of an ongoing project, Erika Zambello is visiting all National Estuarine Research Reserves in the continental United States. Established by NOAA, the sites work together toward long-term research, education and coastal stewardship.

Paula Gillikin starts up the motor, flips the boat into reverse and pulls out of the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserves dock in Beaufort, North Carolina. The boat stretches long and wide, blue life vests with yellow straps tied to the shining metal guard rails, waiting for the group of teachers visiting the area after we pick them up.

We slip easily across the water, a few wispy clouds all that fly between the boat and the bright blue sky. The Rachel Carson Reserve looms in front of us across Taylor’s Creek, sand beaches meeting waving marsh grasses and a low forest canopy beyond. Named for the famous scientist and writer, the reserve encompasses over 2,300 acres, and is composed of multiple islands.

Gillikin, the reserve’s Central Site Manager, has the calm composure of someone at home on the water. Though a stiff breeze blows, she expertly maneuvers us around other boats and submerged navigation hazards to the edge of a beach. The teachers are still hiking on the island — part of an annual training program — but Gillikin has brought me out a bit early to see the islands’ most famous residents: the horses.

The horses of the Rachel Carson Reserve were brought to the property by local citizens during the 1940s, and now survive and breed on their own as part of a distinct feral population. As we pull closer, I catch sight of a pair of gorgeous horses, one a tawny, pale hue, the other sporting deep, chestnut browns. They stand on the marsh, nonchalantly munching the swaying grasses as they make their way along the waterfront. I’m not around horses much in my day-to-day life, and I feel a huge grin quickly stretching from ear to ear.

nature, north carolina, boat

However, the horses are both wild and feral, meaning they live on their own but have a domesticated origin. They are not a native island species, and their presence has caused some disturbance over the decades they’ve lived on the Rachel Carson Reserve. Gillikin is part of the team that manages this herd, and she explains that too many horses on the islands cause both environmental degradation and starving horses, good for neither the native species nor the herd itself. The local human population adores the animals, and does not want them removed. As a result, a compromise had to be reached.

The Rachel Carson Reserve horse population currently numbers around 30 individuals. Every year, certain mares in the herd are given an annual shot of birth control. Using this methodology, the horses are mostly left alone to eat saltmarsh cordgrass, dig for freshwater and live among the herd, but they are not permitted to breed beyond the island’s carrying capacity.

Later in the afternoon, I walk down Beaufort Street with Whitney Jenkins, the reserve’s Coastal Training Program Coordinator. We pass dozens of businesses advertising tours of the reserve, all touting visions of the wild horses. In addition to loving the horses themselves, locals depend on the appeal of the herd for a steady stream of tourism revenue, making the horses an important part of their economy. Through innovative partnerships, the horses are maintained at a healthy level for the environment, the economy and the herd itself.

nature, north carolina, beach

The teachers load onto the boat, oohing and aahing over the unique walk and their views of the two horses as they made their final march through the marsh. We pull away from the beach, the island slowly receding as we return to the reserve dock across the water. The horses of the North Carolina Coastal Reserve are truly beautiful to behold, and through responsible management their ecosystem impacts are minimized and they can continue to thrill tourists and locals alike.

To read more about Erika’s estuary adventures, see VoicesforBiodiversity.org!

Erika Zambello is a writer and photographer currently living on the Emerald Coast of Florida. She has a Master’s Degree in Environmental Management from the Duke Nicholas School of the Environment, where she specialized in Ecosystem Science and Conservation. She is also a National Geographic Young Explorer, completing four trips to the Maine North Woods in each of the four seasons, Fall 2015-Summer 2016.

Erika publishes in both in-print and online magazines, and she is the founder and managing editor of the travel website One World, Two Feet, co-founder of TerraCommunications, as well as the co-managing editor for the award-winning online magazine Voices for Biodiversity.

Follow her daily adventures on Instagram, @a_day_in_the_landscape or zambellophotography.com.