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Exploring the Atlantic Wild Horse Trail with Bonnie Gruenberg
The northernmost 15 miles/25 km of North Carolina’s famous Outer Banks actually lie in Virginia. Like the rest of the Banks, this area supported watermen, subsistence farmers, and free-
As recently as 1926, a writer for National Geographic estimated the number of wild horses on these banks at 5,000—6,000 (Chater, 1926). They grazed primarily in the marshes, drifting out to the beach in the summer months to escape biting insects and catch the sea breeze.
The few wild horses that remain are strikingly Spanish in appearance—short-
Popular legends hold that the original Banker horses swam to the sandy islands from the wreck of a Spanish or English ship. While this scenario is possible, there is no proof. However, trade flourished from the earliest days of the North American colonies, and many of the ships sailing the Atlantic carried horses. Wrecks were commonplace and poorly documented, and storms sometimes swept horses off the decks where they were carried even when the ships remained intact.
Livestock was typically grazed in marshy areas considered unsuitable for any other use. By the 1650s, farmers and stockmen had settled on the necks along the northern margin of Albemarle Sound, and some of them may have turned livestock loose on the Banks not long afterwards. Conant, Juras, and Cothran wrote, “Feral horses are known to have existed on these islands once the mainland was settled, primarily by Englishmen, from 1650 until the present.” Dunbar wrote that by 1776 the Banks were covered with cattle, sheep, and hogs, and “the few inhabitants living on the banks (were) chiefly persons whose estates consist in livestock.” Roundups were held once or twice a year to divide and brand stock and remove certain animals to the mainland. Breeding stock remained to roam freely and multiply at will. These animals were often driven up the Banks to Virginia to be sold.
In the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers installed a system of artificial dunes in an attempt to stabilize the shifting barrier islands for development. Free-
In 1938, two hunters with high-
Corolla, a remote hamlet with no electricity as late as 1955, experienced a population boom in the 1980s after the State extended highway 12 to provide easy access to the northern Outer Banks. Wild horses that had spent their lives in uninhabited dunes and marshes now contended with beach condos and congested traffic. Vehicular accidents killed many horses as they crossed the highway. In September 1994, the nonprofit Corolla Wild Horse Fund blocked equine access to the heavily developed area from Corolla south by building a sea–to-
Today False Cape State Park, Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, occupy the north end of the Banks, and neither entity welcomes horses. Beyond them lies hazardous urban sprawl of Virginia Beach, the most populous city in the state. In 2002, Currituck County and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation built a second sea-
Horses sometimes find their way around or through this fence to range as far north as the Sandbridge neighborhood. The public enjoys seeing wild horses in the Refuge, and at their few incursions cause minimal damage. But the park prefers that they remain in North Carolina, and the refuge views them as a “potential nuisance animal problem” that will become a concern if their population increases.
Like their brethren to the south, the Currituck horses that ventured into Virginia were getting killed on the roads. Donna Snow, former Virginia Beach animal control officer and Corolla Wild Horse Fund director, formed the Virginia Wild Horse Rescue, a nonprofit charity dedicated to protecting wild horses that come into Virginia from North Carolina. Working with the Sandbridge Civic League, she organized a response team to capture and return the wild horses to Currituck County. If horses migrate into the park, the refuge, or beyond, the organization takes action to remove them.
The Visitor Contact Station of Back Bay NWR is located at 4005 Sandpiper Road, Virginia Beach, VA , accessible from the southern terminus of the Sandbridge community. False Cape State Park is sandwiched between Corova, NC and Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge; there is no vehicular access. To reach False Cape State Park, one must hike, bike or boat north from the NC border, or proceed south from Sandbrige, VA, though the Back Bay NWR. The interior trail is is closed from November 1 through March 31.Tram transportation is available April 1 through Oct. 31 through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Hikers can investigate the site of the extinct town of Wash Woods, VA., located within the park.
Chater, M. (1926). Motor-
Conant, E.K., Juras, R., & Cothran, E.G. (2012). A microsatellite analysis of five colonial Spanish horse populations of the southeastern United States. Animal Genetics, 43(1), 53–62. doi:10.1111/j.1365-
Dunbar, G.S. (1958). Historical geography of the North Carolina Outer Banks. Louisiana State University Studies, Coastal Studies Series 3. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Prioli, C. (2007). The wild horses of Shackleford Banks. Winston-
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (2010, September). Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge comprehensive conservation plan. Retrieved from http://www.fws.gov/northeast/planning/Back%20Bay/pdf/FinalCCP/BACKBAYNWRFinalCCP9_2010.pdf
Urquhart, B. S. (2002). Hoofprints in the sand: Wild horses of the Atlantic Coast. Lexington, Ky.: Eclipse.
Visiting Back Bay and
False Cape VA
Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge
False Cape State Park
|Assateague, MD - Visiting|
|Assateague MD - Lodging|
|Assateague MD - Dining|
|Corolla, NC Visiting|
|Corolla, NC - Dining|
|Corolla, NC - Lodging|
|Ocracoke Island Lodging|
|Ocracoke Island Dining|
|Visiting Ocracoke Island|
|Visiting Shackleford Banks|
|Shackleford Banks Dining|
|Shackleford Banks Lodging|
|Visit Cumberland Island GA|
|Cumberland Island National Seashore - dining|
|Cumberland Island National Seashore Lodging|
|The Value of Wild Horses|