The Horses of Cumberland Island
Cumberland Island National Seashore is a spectacular natural wildlife habitat and one of the few places left where horses run wild and free . One of the "Golden Isles" located off the coast of Georgia, Cumberland is the largest of the state's barrier islands. Its 9800 acres of wilderness contain one of the nation’s largest maritime forests, thousands of acres of marshland, miles of undeveloped beaches, and as many as 175 feral horses.
The horses are often sighted on the southern part of the island, near the ruins of the old Carnegie family mansion known as "Dungeness". The area is accessed by ferry from St. Mary’s, Georgia to Dungeness Dock. From the dock, a wide sandy trail leads directly to the Dungeness site. The ruins themselves are spectacular – crumbling stone walls still tower over once grand stairways and decorative terraces. Evidence of the feral herd is everywhere. The land is patterned with hoof prints and the grasses are grazed short.
The horses have organized themselves into small family bands. Mares guide their foals through the shady woods, down the hiking trails and across the windswept sand dunes in search of new forage. The yearlings lag behind, pausing to investigate everything in their path. The protective stallions keep a wary eye out for tourists who get too close.
In my painting, "Love Shows the Way", I try to capture a bit of the magic and mystery that is Cumberland Island...
Where did these horses come from?
Romantics say the herd descends from horses that arrived in the new world aboard Spanish Galleons that were shipwrecked upon the barrier islands hundreds of years ago. Scientific research conducted by the University of Georgia and the University of Kentucky, however, shows that the Cumberland Island equines share DNA with common American breeds.[i] These findings suggest the ancestors of these horses were once domesticated, thus the designation as “feral” rather than “wild” animals. They may have been released on the island as late as the early twentieth century; whether the release was accidental or by design remains unknown.
Because the horses have been determined to be "non-native" to Cumberland Island, there has been controversy over the years as to whether they should be considered a detrimental invasive species. The National Park Service has wildlife management strategies in place to control the populations of deer and feral hogs, but at present, there is no plan for the horses. Other than an annual census to monitor their numbers, the horses are left undisturbed to fend for themselves[ii].
The future of the Cumberland Island horses remains uncertain. Environmental conservationists continue to call for the herd’s removal - citing risk to the breeding grounds of several endangered species of sea turtle. As the number of horses increase, so will their impact upon the island’s ecosystems. No doubt a solution will have to be determined - but for now, the horses roam free to be seen and enjoyed by anyone willing to make the trip to the National Seashore.
[i] United States. National Park Service. “Feral Horses.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, 09 Sept, 2015. Web. 14 Sept, 2015
[ii] Wright, Hal, and Rhett Lawrence. "Feral Animals on Cumberland Island." WildCumberland.org. Wild Cumberland, n.d. Web. 14 Sept. 2015