Hurricane Fiona: What happens to Sable Island wild horses?

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The crescent-shaped Sable Island in the North Atlantic is home to a herd of wild horses and will likely also be a target of the upcoming Hurricane Fiona.

The storm, characterized as “historic” in magnitude by meteorologists, is expected to make landfall Saturday morning, bringing hurricane-force winds and more than 100 millimetres of rain to much of the region and eastern Quebec. More than 200 millimetres of rain is expected to fall — potentially leading to the washout of some roads.

In its latest update, the Canadian Hurricane Centre said the storm is moving northward and is expected to reach Nova Scotia waters late Friday night before passing through Cape Breton early Saturday.

The Sable Island National Park Reserve in Nova Scotia is a narrow strip of dunes and grasslands, with some 500 horses that have roamed it since the 18th century.

They have become synonymous with the island’s romantic and untamed image and are protected as wildlife by Parks Canada under the Canada National Parks Act.

A small team of four officials are prepared to take refuge on the island, and all scheduled flights for tourists have been cancelled. According to a statement by Parks Canada representative Jennifer Nicholson, team members have been actively securing supplies and machinery to reduce potential damage.

However, there is almost little natural protection or shade for the horses on the island; they are not native to the sandbar and are thought to have been introduced by European sailors in the 18th century.

“In terms of horses, wet, windy, and cold weather can pose challenges to the population, which is not uncommon for many wildlife species,” Nicholson said.

While Nicholson didn’t outline specific plans for conservation efforts, she said that “horses act instinctively and seek shelter in groups in the lee of the dunes for protection.”

“Over the last two centuries, the horses of Sable Island have adapted remarkably well to their environment,” she added.

The number of horses on Sable Island are not under Parks Canada’s direct supervision or active management, unlike other wildlife in national parks. Laws forbid anybody from approaching, harming or disturbing the horses on Sable Island and forbid anyone from feeding them.

Coastal areas of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland are expected to experience pounding surf, with waves expected to reach more than 10 metres off Nova Scotia and more than 12 metres in eastern parts of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

In addition to significant storm surges and the potential for flooding in coastal and mainland areas, the storm is expected to cause widespread power outages due to trees and electrical poles brought down by powerful winds.

“Those who will be staying in place on Sable Island are well-accustomed to weathering storms on Sable Island. Fortunately, we have a generator on-site, and the power lines are underground, which means we don’t have to worry about the electricity going out,” Nicholson said.

“However, due to heavy rain, thick cloud cover or shaking of satellite dishes, a loss of communications for a short period of time is expected. On-island team members have access to portable satellite phones to be used for emergencies and will initiate a protocol for regular updates to colleagues on the mainland.”

With files from The Canadian Press and Reuters 

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