(Pictures are examples of genetic defects in horses from the Corolla Wild Horse Fund.)
A fight is brewing on the Outer Banks at the Currituck Wildlife Refuge.
Ducks versus horses are battling over the same land.
For five generations, the Corolla
Wild Horses have roamed the banks of North Carolina.
They are considered a state treasure and people travel from all over the world to see them.
But now, their future is in jeopardy.
History of Wild Horses on Outer Banks
The history of the wild horses living on the Currituck Outer Banks begins more than 400 years ago. In the early 1500s, Spaniards explored coastal North Carolina. They brought with them horses that were raised in the Spanish colonies which are now Puerto Rico. Originating from Spanish and Portuguese Barb stock, these choice mounts were bred for their stamina, size, temperament, ease of gait, longevity and their ability to survive and work in a sandy, harsh environment. It is accepted that Barb horses (after the Barbary Coast of northern Africa) are related to Arabian horses found in the sandy deserts of the Arabian peninsula.
Along with other livestock including cattle, sheep and pigs, the horses were transported by being harnessed on the decks of Spanish ships. Because of the lack of deep harbors in North Carolina, some of the livestock made the final leg of the journey by swimming ashore.
Native Americans, of course, inhabited much of the areas the Spanish (and later the English) explored and settled. The relationship between the native and non-native cultures was not enhanced by the sale of Indians into slavery. Many were “exported” to the West Indies through Charleston, South Carolina. According to Dale Burrus, senior Inspector for the Spanish Mustang Registry, Indian revolts forced the Spaniards “to flee to stronger Spanish holdings in Florida, leaving behind all their livestock.”
The Corolla Wild Horse Fund was formed in 1989 by a group of concerned citizen volunteers to heighten awareness about the presence of wild horses in the area. As the Currituck Outer Banks became more and more developed, between 1985 and 1996, twenty horses were killed or injured by vehicles on Highway 12.
By 1997, the remaining horses were relocated behind two sound-to-sea fences, 11 miles apart. Although referenced as a wild horse “sanctuary”, the 7,544 acres accessible to the horses is a mix of 1/3 public land and 2/3 private land. There are 3,150 platted lots with nearly 21% of the northern beaches being built out. The beach is a public road and the accessible only by 4 wheel drive vehicle.
The Fund incorporated as a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit charity in 2001. Their mission is “to protect, conserve, and responsibly manage the herd of wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs roaming freely on the northernmost Currituck Outer Banks, and to promote the continued preservation of this land as a permanent sanctuary for horses designated as the State Horse and defined as a cultural treasure by the state of North Carolina.” The Colonial Spanish Mustang is on the Critically Endangered Breed list of the American Livestock Conservancy and on the Nearly Extinct list of the Equus Survival Trust.
The History of Ducks on the Outer Banks
The region had always held extraordinary numbers of wintering waterfowl, even as a saltier estuary. Birds such as ducks, geese, and swan come evolutionarily equipped with what we call supraorbital salt glands specifically designed for expelling salt from the body when in a habitat like this.
With the closing of the Currituck inlet in 1823 however, Currituck was suddenly transformed into what would become most productive winter waterfowl habitat on the Eastern Seaboard, providing refuge for 10% of all the waterfowl along the East Coast of North America at the time.
Peel through the yellowed pages of the journals left over from the nineteenth and early twentieth century by waterfowl guides and duck hunters along the Currituck Banks and you will quickly find that most people, even locals, remained in a state of awe at the sheer number of birds that this area attracted.
When flocks of waterfowl took flight off the water, their numbers would completely blacken the sky. For this reason, locals referred to the phenomenon simply as “smoke,” as it reminded them of the giant columns of smoke that would cloud out the sun when the marshlands caught fire. From the perspective of the 21st century, we can only find ourselves somewhat jealous of the wildlife spectacles that our ancestors once witnessed.
All species of waterfowl came to take refuge along these waters with redheads and canvasbacks the most highly sought after by local gunners as they were considered the best table ducks the tribe of waterfowl had to offer.
Over the course of history however, it was not so much the ducks as the geese that would come to symbolize the bounty of the Currituck Sound due to their impossible numbers.
Both the greater snow goose and the Canada goose called this land their winter home with numbers once in the millions. Even today, there are an estimated two million geese that call Eastern North Carolina home.
Traveling to and hunting along the Currituck had become something of a right of passage for many of America’s elite. One of them was Joseph Knapp, a prominent New York Businessman.
Though locally Joseph Palmer Knapp is best known for his philanthropy throughout Currituck County and other parts of eastern North Carolina, on the national scale, it is his dedication and commitment to long term conservation that he goes down in the history books for.
Regardless of the conservation measures that Currituck hunting clubs adopted, true conservation, Knapp understood, would have to take place at the international level. Waterfowl, being migratory birds, could not be managed on a local level to ensure the continuation of the species.
As these birds range from Canada down to Florida and points south, Knapp knew that without an organized effort by the very same movers and shakers who took so much pride in their membership in the Currituck hunting clubs, without a large scale movement working for the protection of key breeding and wintering grounds as well as the enforcement of conservation minded hunting laws, the waterfowl of the Atlantic Flyway had little to no chance of making it through the twentieth century.
In 1930, Joseph Knapp formed More Game Birds in America. This was to be the first wildlife organization of its type. The Audubon Society had formed specifically to protect wading birds that were being hunted to extinction by the plume hunters for the women’s fashion industry.
More Game Birds in America, however, did not seek to only conserve waterfowl populations. What made Knapp’s organization so different is that their goal was to specifically grow the population of waterfowl through habitat preservation and breeding programs. This was a landmark for wildlife conservation in the United States.
Today, we know of the More Game Birds in America by the name it adopted in 1937 – Ducks Unlimited.
Today, the vast majority of the old hunt clubs are gone. Most in fact are no longer even standing. A few have been converted over to coffee shops, private residences, and most notably a museum as is the case with the Whalehead Club.
The Monkey Island club handed over all of its lands to the US Fish and Wildlife to help create the Currituck Beach National Wildlife Refuge. The Swan Island Shooting Club, which is now the largest and most active club on the Currituck followed suit and also donated considerable amount of land to the creation of the refuge, though they still own much of their original holdings.
The famed Currituck Club is still in operation today and therefore has the distinction of being the longest continual running hunt club in America though the main club house burnt to the ground in 2003, and along with it untold priceless artifacts of our history here on the Currituck Banks.
Despite the fire, however, the spirit of the club still lives on, and each fall and winter club members make their annual pilgrimage to the marshy banks of the Sound to follow the tradition of so many gunners before them.