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Exploring the Atlantic Wild Horse Trail with Bonnie Gruenberg

Carrot Island, Town Marsh, Bird Shoal, Horse Island, and Middle Marshes make up the 2,315-acre/938-ha Rachel Carson North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve, one of 27 reserves around the country designated for research, education, and stewardship. The four reserves in North Carolina represent the diversity of habitats in the state's estuarine ecosystems. Of these, Rachel Carson and Currituck both reluctantly support populations of feral horses.

Carrot Island appears on maps as early as 1777, and it was the site of a fishery in the early 1800s. In 1782, during the Revolutionary War, a small British party landed near the mouth of Taylors Creek, exchanged fire with locals, and then withdrew to overnight on Carrot Island. The next morning, the British overcame the local troops in Beaufort and briefly occupied the town (Fear, 2008). A fishery was established on Carrot Island as early as 1806 (Fear, 2008). In the 1920s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged Taylors Creek and deposited the sand on Carrot, building it higher and increasing its stability. Carrot Island, Town Marsh, Bird Shoal, and Horse Island, acquired in 1985, total more than 3 mi/4.8 km in length and less than 1 mi/1.6 km in width. Middle Marsh, acquired in 1989, is roughly 2 mi/3.2 km long and less than 1 mi/1.6 km wide. The Reserve was named in honor of Rachel Carson, who conducted research at the site in the 1940s.

A Beaufort physician named Luther Fulcher, who also owned horses on Shackleford banks, released six of his horses to graze Carrot Island and its associated salt marshes, intertidal flats, and tidal creeks in the late 1940s; but these animals were not the first equids to graze these marshes. Free-roaming horses have probably been in residence on Carrot Island and its associated marshes since at least the 1800s. Paula Gillikin, Rachel Carson site manager, maintains that horses were probably on the property long before the 1940s, though there is no proof. Horse Island has appeared on maps since the 1800s, and probably was named for horses grazing there. In July 1976, about 40 acres/16 ha of the island were almost auctioned off for development. Beaufort residents who enjoyed the wild beauty of the island and its horses took action. After a legal battle, the Nature Conservancy, aided by funds raised by concerned local residents, paid $250,000 for Carrot Island and Bird Shoal to protect it from development. Without periodic gathers and removals, the horses proliferated and overgrazed the marsh grasses, unbalancing the estuarine ecology. By 1986, the horse population on this small island had reached 68.

Moreover, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged more than 150,000 tons/136 million kg of silt and sand from Beaufort Channel and deposited it atop the island, forming an 18-foot-high (5.5 m) dike that buried important forage species and prevented the horses and other wildlife from accessing a freshwater pond (Saffron, 1987). There simply was not enough food for all of them, and the island was beginning to resemble a sandbox, with minimal resources available.

During the winter of 1986-1987. Famine, disease, and parasites killed 29 individuals within a few months. Once concerned locals realized what was happening, they brought in hay as supplementary feed; but the starving horses, accustomed to native grasses, were reluctant to eat it.

Spring brought numerous foals, and by August 1988 the herd numbered 51. The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries had helped them through the 1987–1988 winter by providing 20 bales of hay each week. A point well ensured fresh water. But clearly this level of human assistance could not continue. If the horses were to remain as on the island, their numbers must be in balance with their environment.

Biologists determined that Carrot Island could comfortably sustain between 15 and 25 horses, and in 1988 the state removed 33 of 52. Nine of the 33 removed tested positive for EIA and were euthanized. Private individuals adopted the remainder.

In 1998, the Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources permitted a representative herd of 30 horses to remain on the Rachel Carson Reserve. Reserve personnel manage herd size with PZP, a medication that literally vaccinates a mare against pregnancy.

Additionally, the Army Corps of Engineers currently deposits dredge spoils alongside Carrot Island rather than on top of it.

The reserve keeps a record book that tracks each horse, noting parentage, appearance, reproductive record, contraceptive doses, general health, social habits and, eventually, death. The Reserve comprises several islands separated by shallows, creeks and mud flats, which frustrate access by personnel and make immunocontraception difficult to implement. In the 1990s, veterinarians repeatedly attempted to test each Carrot Island horse for EIA within the same week and were unsuccessful because of the inaccessible terrain (Taggart, 2008).

Although the herd appears healthy and in a reasonable balance with its environment, many voice concerns about the long-term health of the population. A herd large enough to maintain genetic diversity without periodic introductions of unrelated horses is too large for the food resources in the Rachel Carson Reserve. From the obvious physical homogeneity of the horses present on the reserve, it would appear that genetic variability is dwindling, and the reserve does not allow for the addition of outside individuals to broaden the gene pool.

In April, 2011, the census of the Rachel Carson herd included 31 adult horses and 1 foal, most living in one of 7 harems. Bachelor stallions in the herd tend to wander alone rather than to form bachelor bands.

Horses remain on Carrot Island, but relations with their caretakers are strained. The managers of the state lands on which they graze see the horses as incompatible with the management goals of the reserve and fear long-term ecological consequences (Taggart, 2008). Most local residents and visitors, however, want to see the herd remain on the reserve. Public opinion has shaped policies, and the current management plan reflects an uneasy compromise. Yet for many, it is an uplifting experience to watch them grazing across the water from the town of Beaufort as they have for tens and maybe hundreds of years.


Fear, J., et al. (2008, August). A comprehensive site profile for the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve. Retrieved from

Muse, A. (1941). The story of the Methodists in the Port of Beaufort. New Bern, NC: Owen G. Dunn.

Saffron, I. (1987, April 20). As ponies die, an entire town feels the pain. Retrieved from

Taggart, J.B. (2008). Management of feral horses at the North Carolina Estuarine Research Reserve. Natural Areas Journal, 28(2), 187–195. Doi: 10.3375/0885-8608(2008)28[187:MOFHAT] 2.0.CO;2

Urquhart, B. S. (2002). Hoofprints in the sand: Wild horses of the Atlantic Coast. Lexington, Ky.: Eclipse.




Carrot Island, NC


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Respect free-roaming horses as wildlife. Keep at least the length of a large bus between you and the horses at all times., And try not to disrupt their behavior with your presence.



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