In a land run barren by communism’s modern farming concepts, there’s a great need for healing, says a group of Czech environmentalists. Healing of the landscape, healing of the culture, healing of the hearts of a people who’ve forgotten what it’s like to see animals grazing peacefully at pasture or in the wild.
But thanks to 15 sturdy bay and brown ponies that have recently arrived in a north central region of the Czech Republic, that’s all about to change.
“This isn’t just about rewilding our central European territory,” said Miloslav Jirku, PhD, of the Biology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences. “It’s not about bringing animals here because we want them here or because they used to be here. We’re bringing them here because we need them here.”
In an unprecedented environmental conservation effort, Jirku and his team of scientists have handpicked a specific pony breed native to England—the Exmoor—and placed it on former military landscapes less than an hour northeast of Prague. Their goal? To have nature take its course, with large herbivores grazing and fertilizing the land, in hopes of one day restoring it to the rich and productive territory it used to be before World War II.
“In communist times (1940-1989), the Soviet government established a program called ‘collectivization’ of farms,” Jirku said. “Basically it meant seizing land and livestock from traditional landowners and centralizing them all in government-run institutions, where the animals were kept mostly indoors all the time. They taught us that it was the modern and efficient way of farming, but it was obviously bad for animal welfare, and it wasted the land and led to the loss of traditional agricultural practices.”
Restoring land that’s been barren for 70 years is no easy task for these environmentalists. But three species of herbivores—cattle, European bison, and horses—are being called to duty. It’s a decision based on more than five years of careful study of the needs of the land, the animals, and the people. In spring 2015, the team unloaded its first herd: the Exmoor ponies.
“We wanted to start with the horses, because they’re easier to manage than the bison, and they’re beautiful animals that will attract the interest and support of the people,” Jirku said. “We have to proceed carefully to get people used to seeing large animals grazing practically in their backyards (even if the pastures are fenced off from private properties). The horse is majestic and familiar to Czech culture, where it’s used for sports and racing, and people aren’t afraid of it like they might be with the other species. So it’s a first stepping stone towards the full project.”
Jirku’s team chose the Exmoor pony after intense research, he added. “Ideally we would have gone back to a horse that was native to this area, but that gene pool has been completely wiped out since the Neolithic period due to hunting and, later, cross-breeding with domestic herds” he said. “So we had to look for another breed that’s remained mostly genetically pure since domestication, retained predomestication characteristics and survival skills and can handle our climate and terrain.”
And as it turns out, some “native” European breeds like the Hutsul or Polish Konik are actually not so native after all, Jirku said. “The Hutsul was developed for military purposes in the 1850s with the goal of creating a hardy native breed, and the Konik was developed in the 1930s to bring back a horse breed resembling the wild ancestor of the domestic horse,” he explained. “However, their breeding programs were based on some inaccurate information that led to genetic crosses that are quite distant from what ancient DNA studies now reveal about the true native horses.”
For one thing, prehistoric horses were not grey like the Konik, he said. And they probably were not mixed colours like some Mediterranean breeds. “Research shows us that predomestic horses were most likely bay or black, sometimes with some dappling,” said Jirku. “And they were probably all of similar colour in the herd, with few or no markings, as a better protection mechanism.”
The 14 Exmoor mares and one Exmoor stallion were sold and shipped from the U.K. to their new Czech home for about $25,000, he said. After a few weeks in a five-acre adaptation area, the ponies were released to their permanent site of 100 acres. While simple shelter is provided and they’re monitored regularly, the animals are otherwise left to live on their own as a feral herd.
Eight months into the project, Jirku said he’s pleased with the progress. “The horses have all adapted very well, most of the mares are apparently in foal, and numerous endangered plants and animals are already returning, much faster than we expected,” he said.
Next steps include behavior research on the herds, intense environmental research on the horses’ effects on the landscape, and, of course, the arrival of the other species as the research area expands.
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