The Canadian government announced on February 4th that it will be investing $682,000 in a project to research the Sable Island ecosystem. The storied island holds a special place in the hearts of horse lovers the world over due to its iconic wild horse herd.

But horses aren’t the only inhabitants; the island is also home to the world’s largest breeding colony of grey seals and other unique species such as the Sable Island sweat bee that are found nowhere else on Earth.

And that is why the Federal government is financing the project called “Fences in the Sand,” whereby a series of fenced areas will be installed to keep the horses out from specific sites on the island so that researchers can learn what affect the wild herd has on indigenous flora and fauna.

In total there will be nine “paddocks”, each one hectare in size and enclosed with electric fencing, which was deemed to be the safest and most effective for the wild horses. Over the next five years the team will collect and analyze data to assess direct and/or indirect influences the herd has on: dune processes (i.e., erosion), ecological integrity of freshwater ponds (including rare plants, water quality, and invertebrates), and rare species and their habitats (including Roseate terns, Ipswich Sparrows and rare or endemic insects).

“Nature is central to Canada’s culture, prosperity and way of life. Sable Island National Park Reserve is known for its wild horses, rich history and unique biodiversity. That’s why the Government of Canada is investing in critical research to better understand the ecological role the horses have on this dynamic ecosystem,” remarked Andy Fillmore, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities and Member of Parliament for Halifax in a statement. “Parks Canada and the Sable Island Institute will lead this significant work, while establishing education and outreach opportunities aimed at building connections for Canadians to this iconic national treasure.”

The remote island is located 175 km southeast of mainland Nova Scotia and is home to approximately 500 horses. The wild herd have been legally protected since the 1960s and it is thought that they’ve been on the sandy island since the mid-1700s. As for how they got to there, historians believe they were seized from Acadians by the British and relocated to the island. The original Acadian horses are thought to be ancestors of French horses such as Breton, Andalusian and Norman breeds. While small in stature, genetic studies have shown that they possess a horse phenotype and are therefore horses, not ponies.

According to reports, in 2007 a genetic analysis was completed and researchers concluded that the herd was genetically unique. Perhaps due to this, the horses were declared the official horse of Nova Scotia in 2008, and in 2011 the island was christened the Sable Island National Park Reserve.

As part of the project, which is funded through Parks Canada’s Conservation and Restoration Program, interpretative material will be developed for virtual visitors so that people can learn more about the Fences in the Sand and the importance of ecological integrity in managing national parks like the  Sable Island National Park Reserve.