Wild Tarpan Horses Saving the Environment
The Wildwood Trust in Canterbury has collaborated with English Nature and Kent Wildlife Trust to bring in two herds of Konik horses to manage the wetlands of Stodmarsh and Ham Fen in a move to restore to Kent the big grazers which originally shaped the British countryside. The Wildwood Trust animal discovery park attracts 100,000 visitors a year.
The horses are helping to bring wildlife and rare birds back to once desolate marshlands.
Koniks are direct descendants of the Tarpan, a wild horse which was hunted to extinction here but continued to inhabit Eastern Europe until the 19th Century. Horse breeders found their domestic mares had mated with wild Tarpan stallions and produced foals with the Tarpan characteristics of mouse grey colouring, two tone manes and zebra stripes on the front legs; these foals were selectively bred to produce big, hardy horses for habitat management schemes, called Koniks (the Polish word for wild horse).
In an intriguing ecological exercise that could revitalise the countryside, naturalistic grazing is the environmental buzzword - the horses basically munch the marshes back to life.
The hardy Koniks, bred in Poland from the now extinct European Tarpan, are superbly adapted to living on wetlands and revitalise reed beds as they graze.
Peter Smith, the Wildwood Trust's chief executive, beleives that the sturdy and self-reliant Konik is the perfect tool for re-creating a nature reserve on the banks of the River Stour.
Gravel from the 150 acre (60 hectare) area was excavated for building materials up to the 1950s. The land constantly flooded, it was then shored up with chalk but proved uneconomical for agricultural use.
The first 13 horses have already produced four foals, who graze contentedly in the spring sunshine after settling speedily into their new home.
"They are almost like little farmers selecting the plants they want. There is harmony between the plants and the animals who have evolved together over millions of years. Man has taken away this harmony," Smith said.
"But the horses certainly have had a very, very harsh history and a very sinister past."
Tarpans roamed all over Britain until hunted to extinction in Neolithic times. They survived in central Europe until pure breeds finally disappeared at the turn of the 20th century.
Polish scientists, noticing that Tarpan-coloured foals were being born to local mares, successfully bred back horses with similar characteristics and called them Koniks - Polish for pony.
After the Nazi invasion of Poland in World War Two, whole herds were stolen and transported back to Germany where geneticists sought to recreate the pure Aryan wild horse.
"The Nazis were trying to emulate what they thought was Germany's greatest era. Having a Teutonic horse was something to parade at Nazi rallies," Smith said.
When the Russians invaded Germany in the final days of the war, the horses were eaten by the starving people of Munich and Berlin.
After the war, protected herds repopulated Poland's national parks. Then, with the fall of the Iron Curtain, conservationists transported the horses to parks across Europe.
So that is how, after a tortuous path through equine history, a herd of Koniks from Holland ended up in this cathedral city bringing nature full circle in the land where they were once hunted to extinction.
Wildwood is a unique woodland discovery park. It occupies 40 acres of ancient woodland, with easy access and lots to do and explore.
From owls to otters, bees to beavers, and wild boar to wolves, experience close encounters with native wildlife in an environment that is close to nature. The life of Wildwood constantly changes with the seasons; as our animals give birth a whole host of young animals can be spotted, so every visit is a new experience.
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