Our Burning Planet


Free-roaming wild horses in severe danger as habitat shrinks, traffic accidents rise

Free-roaming wild horses in severe danger as habitat shrinks, traffic accidents rise
Stallions fighting in the vlei. (Photo: Leanne Dryburgh)

For more than 100 years the once 28-strong herd has roamed the wetland estuary of Fisherhaven. But unlit roads, new developments and fences being removed threaten the horses’ safety. Help is needed. 

Wild horses — just the words — conjure up images of prancing, dancing horses, manes flowing, free to roam as they have done for centuries.

Magical though these thoughts are, things aren’t always like that in real life.

Leanne Dryburgh, a professional photographer, is part of a small volunteer team watching over one of the last remaining herds of wild horses in South Africa, known as the Rooisand wild horses.

Three weeks ago, she sent out an SOS to highlight the plight of a small herd of wild horses that has settled in Fisherhaven near Hermanus, which she says is in trouble.

“This herd is running out of time,” says Dryburgh. “There are many people moving into Fisherhaven, a new school has opened, empty plots are being fenced and traffic has increased. They need to go back to their natural habitat to be with the original Rooisand herds that roam the Rooisand Nature Reserve. We know the issues. We know the solutions. We need to act now as a matter of urgency. It’s a big logistical undertaking.”

Leanne Dryburgh, wild horses

Leanne Dryburgh keeping an eye on the herds, from a distance. (Photo: Leanne Dryburgh)

Dryburgh has worked closely with the authorities for the past eight years helping these horses, but her pleas are now falling on deaf ears. It is just the private sector and community who are listening and helping, she says.

Fences have been taken down on the side of the R43 where a new development has emerged. This has allowed the herd to wander onto the main road. Further new developments along the main R43 road to and from Cape Town, she says, have made the area unsafe.

Their condition is remarkable. (Photo: Leanne Dryburgh)

Three devastating incidents reported by the team in the past 12 months have happened as a result.

In the first incident, in February 2023, young Amber (named only for identification purposes) was hit by a police car travelling at speed. At that time, new street lighting had been erected in that area, but had not been turned on. Had these lights been on, Amber and her herd would have been seen. She would have been alive today. The herd, obviously traumatised, found refuge in a nearby water treatment works where there was plenty of food and water.

Four weeks ago, the team was alerted that Bella, who lost an eye early in her life, had been chased by one of the stallions and had fallen into a 30x30m sludge pit in the water treatment works where she was neck-deep in sewage/sludge and nearing death.

Law enforcement and the fire brigade were called, but agreed there was nothing they could do, and left her to drown.

Dryburgh was called at 1am, and with a small and dedicated team of seven citizens, at 7am they pulled Bella to safety. The vet came to check her, and gave her the all-clear, but thereafter she disappeared. A drone has been sent up, eyes everywhere and a reward is out but so far there are no obvious signs that she has died, such as raptors circling. The team is still looking for her. “Often when one of these horses gets injured, they take themselves off to heal. If she has not passed, she will reappear when she is ready.”

Bella finally being rescued by volunteers

Bella finally being rescued by volunteers after six long hours. (Photo: Leanne Dryburgh)

Last month Bolt, a young stallion who had been seen grazing safely at the edge of the estuary at sundown, roamed up to the R43 with his older brother Slate, to the same area where the fencing is still down. Bolt wandered into the road where no lighting has been erected and was hit and killed.

Volunteers say all they can do is raise awareness — throughout the country if need be. There’s a real sense of urgency to move the six remaining wild Fisherhaven horses to safety and give them a life of freedom.

Bolt, wild horses

Bolt safely on the Bot River Estuary the night he died. (Photo: Leanne Dryburgh)

Significance of the Overberg horses

For more than 100 years these wild horses have roamed and survived in the wetlands of the Bot River Estuary. For decades they’ve been admired by eminent environmental scientists, and are widely regarded as a national treasure. They have also roamed the Bot-Kleinmond estuary and wetland between Hermanus and Sir Lowry’s Pass for well over a century.

They have been classified as the fifth largest herd in the world never to have been given food or water.

Ecologists say that the herd fulfils an ecological function that was once fulfilled by locally extinct herbivores. Like their ancient predecessors, their large bodies keep the water channels open and they should largely remain free, roaming in the wetland estuary.

There are a few theories about their origins. Some suggest they are survivors of the Birkenhead, a British troopship that foundered off Danger Point in 1852 (although this has been largely discounted).

Others think they descend from horses brought in by the British for combat use during the Anglo-Boer War. In the period from 1899 to 1902, the British Empire shipped 360,000 horses to South Africa. Equally, they could be from Boer horses hidden in the area during the same war. Or they could descend from horses abandoned in the marshes by a local farmer when mechanisation rendered draught animals obsolete at the beginning of the 20th century.

The late Professor Frans van der Merwe who studied them for four decades believed they were descended from the Boland waperd, or wagon horse. On occasion, new genes have been brought into the herd.

wild horses

Enjoying the roots of the reeds. (Photo: Leanne Dryburgh)

Facts about the wild horses

They are the only horses in South Africa known to survive and thrive in the wetlands, which provide them with food and water sources. They are known for their unique and hardy nature, adapted to the coastal environment.

Until now, their population has barely fluctuated over the past 30 years. When the herd numbers increase, stallions are born, and when they decrease, mares are born.

They are sometimes seen grazing in the shallow water, pushing their muzzle down under the surface to ingest mouthfuls of water grass. They also eat the edible shrubs and grasses on the sides and in the reed beds.

During the winter months, the horses grow thicker fur that shields them against the frigid breeze and icy rain. Their hooves are saucer-shaped and manage the soft, wet underfoot conditions surprisingly well.

wild horses

Their free-roaming under threat. (Photo: Leanne Dryburgh)

Latest update

In response to a letter from the volunteers to the Overstrand District Engineers Office, the issue of fencing for the area has been noted.

In the meantime “wild horses crossing” warning signs will be installed on the approaches to the affected sections of the R43 and R44. DM

If you want to know more about Leanne Dryburgh and the work she and her volunteer team do to protect the wild horses, visit rooisandwildhorses.com or email [email protected].

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ritey roo roo says:

    What magnificent creatures! We must do everything we can to help them. What can I do?

  • Charles Butcher says:

    Seems the only thing we do well is DESTROY

  • Peter Vos says:

    Sorry. They are beautiful, but they don’t belong.
    They’re feral domestic horses, alien invaders to Southern Africa.
    No different to feral pigs, Black or Brown Rats, or domestic cats – though much cuter (the cat people already hate me).
    Far better to reintroduce Cape Mountain Zebra to fill the same ecological niche, joining the other natural, indigenous, ungulates like Bushbuck, Grey Duiker, Cape Grysbuck, Cape Rhebuck and Klipspringer.

  • Bonzo Gibbon says:

    There are wild horses around Kaapschehoop in Mpumalanga.

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