Nova Scotia

Sable Island: Should the feral horses be removed?

A biologist who specializes in the study of unique ecosystems contained on remote islands says horses have no business on Sable Island.

Biologist argues horses are an invasive species damaging the natural ecosystem on Sable

Historians believe the wild horses that live on Sable Island are descended from animals that were confiscated from the Acadians when the British expelled them from Nova Scotia in the late 1750s and 1760s. (Bill Freedman/Dalhousie University)

A biologist who specializes in the study of unique ecosystems contained on remote islands says horses have no business on Sable Island.

Ian Jones, a biologist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland who is studying island conservation research, said both he and his colleagues in the scientific community agree the horses should be removed.

"The scientific consensus is at odds with an, unfortunately, not very well informed public view about this," Jones told Information Morning on Friday.

Although a popular story is that the Sable Island horses swam ashore from one of the island's many shipwrecks, historians believe the horses were deliberately introduced to the island during the 18th century.

The horses on Sable Island today are most likely descendants of animals that were seized by the British from the Acadians during their expulsion from Nova Scotia in the late 1750s and 1760s.

"They say love makes you blind and a lot of people really love horses, especially when they're tossing their manes in idyllic places. You know, I love horses too, but when we consider islands like Sable Island that are among the world's most remote islands, this is one of the most threatened ecosystems on the planet," said Jones.

"This example of the horse on Sable Island is yet another example — which really occur all over the world  — of the introduction of farm animals on to a remote island with extremely destructive consequences."

Jones appealed to Parks Canada to "enforce their own rules."

Invasive horses contravene National Parks Act

When Sable Island became a national park reserve last year, its management came under the legislation of the Canada National Parks Act.

"That act says — part 3.2 section 11 — it says, 'All practical efforts will be made to prevent the introduction of exotic plants and animals into national parks and to eliminate or contain them where they already exist,'" said Jones.

"According to the legislation, the exotic, invasive horses are there in contravention of the act and Parks Canada is obliged to remove them. It's not a matter of my opinion or anything, it's the legislation."

An invasive species is one that could not have entered an ecosystem on its own without human help. 

Jones says it's incorrect to view the horses as "wild."

"These are abandoned farm animals. I know people like to romanticize about them but they are abandoned farm animals, they've had a horrific impact on the island," he said.

'It's a flawed jewel'

Jones said the horses contribute to the desertification of the island by consuming large amounts of vegetation and compacting the soil, damaging the root systems of the plants that do survive.

He said the horses would be better off on the mainland where they could be "loved and protected." Jones said horses on Sable Island are suffering awful mortality rates, especially during the winter.

"In Canada we're blessed with a lot of interesting natural areas, but we don't really have very many of these unique offshore islands and Sable is one," Jones said.

"It's really the jewel, but it's a flawed jewel because of these invasive, introduced animals. It's a real tragedy."

There have been previous calls to remove the horses from Sable Island. In the 1950s, some biologists said the animals were damaging the habitats of the ecologically sensitive island and proposed they be removed.

The Canadian government planned to ship them to the mainland to work in coal mines or be killed for food or their hides. It reversed its decision, in part because of a letter writing campaign launched by schoolchildren across the county.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?