Thursday, Mar 18, 2010
Cumberland Island conducted its annual horse census last weekend, again employing a group of dedicated volunteers to make the count.
The volunteer group consists of members who typically participate each year and know the census protocol and routes, which adds consistency and validity to the results. One volunteer has participated for over 10 years. A total of 20 routes are surveyed during the two-day period. Data collected includes the number of horses seen, sex, age class, location, and habitat. Information is stored in a database for comparison to previous years.
Thirty volunteers participated in this year’s census and counted 121 horses. Over the previous 11 years, the census totals have ranged from a low of 120 to a high of 154. While it is not possible to count every horse on the island, the numbers can be used primarily as an index to abundance. Since there is consistency in the time of year of the census, tidal conditions, routes, survey times, and participants, the data generated can be considered an accurate portrayal of long term trends in the population. For those wanting an exact number of horses on the island, another 50 or so horses could probably be added to the number generated by the census to get close.
The park has been monitoring the horse herd since 1981. During that time, the herd has been estimated to be as high as 250 animals. The presence of horses on Cumberland Island can be traced back to the 1700’s, with likely existence occurring even earlier during the Spanish missionary period in the 1500’s. The current herd has a genetic makeup closely related to several breeds of common domestic horses, which is likely the result of post-1900 introductions.
The park herd is feral, free ranging, and unmanaged. The park will continue the annual census and increase research to evaluate horse-related impacts on the numerous island vegetative communities with the goal of developing a horse management plan in the future.