CEDAR ISLAND — A manager of the Cedar Island wild horse herd said more than half the animals are presumed dead due to Hurricane Dorian-related storm surge.
Manager Woody Hancock of Cedar Island said Wednesday he has been unable to account for 28 of the 49 horses that comprised the wild herd. Numerous dead horses have been spotted.
“We’ve accounted for 21 horses and we know the rest are dead,” he said. “We may never find some of the bodies.”
The horses, related to the better-known herds on Shackleford Banks and Corolla, have roamed wild on small marsh islands just off Cedar Island or near the state ferry terminal for years, according to Mr. Hancock.
There are also wild cattle roaming in the same area. Many of the cattle are presumed dead, as well.
“We found one (cow) body,” he said.
Mr. Hancock thinks the sudden and rapidly rising storm surge during Hurricane Dorian Sept. 5-6 caused the animals to drown.
“Normally the tide would rise slowly, giving the horses time to get to higher ground. This time, when the wind shifted, the tide rose 7.5 to 8 feet in an hour and a half, and it was early morning. I am sure they were grazing in the marsh and the tide caught the horses off guard. They couldn’t get to higher ground in time,” Mr. Hancock said.
While news of the loss has devastated many in the small island community, Mr. Hancock said he and other local residents who oversee the herd plan to rebuild its population.
“We still have 21 left,” Mr. Hancock said. “I have a stallion from the herd and we plan to reintroduce him back into the population. There’s also a gentleman in South Carolina that has two stallions from the herd that we can bring back if needed. We’ll build the herd back up.”
Mr. Hancock said of the 21 remaining horses, there are 13 mares and eight geldings, which are castrated male horses.
Mr. Hancock said there have been questions about why the community didn’t remove the horses prior to the storm.
“People need to remember these are wild horses and they are spread out. That would be like trying to transport the herd off Shackleford Banks. It would be impossible to track down all the horses and transport them out in time. In (the) 25 years since we started this herd, this is the first time we’ve had a storm surge like this. Prior to Dorian, we’ve only lost two horses during a hurricane.”
The history of the Cedar Island herd goes back to about 25 years ago to when Mr. Hancock said he had two mares from the herd at Shackleford Banks, which is managed by the National Parks Service.
Years ago the NPS would hold annual round ups of the Shackleford herd to manage the group and provide medical checks. If there were too many horses, some would be removed from the island and put up for adoption through the Foundation for Shackleford Horses Inc.
During that time, the NPS shared some of the Shackleford horses with Mr. Hancock to start a satellite herd of wild horses on Cedar Island.
“We did that so in the event something happened to the Shackleford herd, we would have another herd that we could rebuild that population or vice versa,” he said.
Mr. Hancock said he believes the horse population will grow quickly once his stallion, Leroy, is re-introduced to the herd next spring.
“One time we introduced a stallion for one season, and the next spring we had 12 foals,” he said. “They can reproduce so quickly that we periodically adopt out horses from our herd. We won’t do that any time soon while we rebuild the population.”
Cedar Islanders take pride in their herd, and each horse receives a name. Many also have a unique brand to help identify them.
“We decided several years ago to name the horses after original residents of our community,” he said. “We know every horse and its name.”
When a new foal is born and the name is selected, the person it is named after receives a photo of the horse named in their honor. So horses have names like Ronald, Becky and Leroy, according to Mr. Hancock.
As for the care of the herd, Mr. Hancock said students from the N.C. State University veterinary school come down to help castrate stallions when needed.
He added that he also confers and works with Dr. Sue Stuska, the wild horse biologist for the NPS who manages the Shackleford Banks horses.
Dr. Stuska said Wednesday she doesn’t believe any of the Shackleford herd was lost to Dorian.
“We didn’t lose any that we know of,” she said. “It’s going to be months before I know for certain.”
She, too, believes it’s likely the 28 horses on Cedar Island did drown due to surge.
“Those marsh islands off Cedar Island are low and it’s likely they got swept away,” she said. “They’ve had people in boats out looking on those islands so they would spot a horse pretty quickly if it was still alive.”
Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.