Horses help bears

December 28, 2012

It is already pitch dark when I arrive in the small town of Midwolda, in the far North of the Netherlands. I call Dirk Brul, the manager of Ennemaborgh and ask him for the key to the barn, my hotel for the night. I will not sleep alone.

The barn is inhabited by, very appropriately, a pair of barn owls. It has been a very long drive so I am sure the owls won’t keep me awake. It will, however, be a very short night as it will be an early rise; round-up time tomorrow and loading 28 horses for transport to their ‘new home’ in Spain. The Groninger Landschap foundation has donated Konik horses to me in the past, for natural grazing projects in Estonia, Germany, Poland and Latvia, so we have been working together for a numbers of years. Going back ‘North’ therefore feels like a reunion every time. These Northern guys are hard workers and experienced with horses, a pleasure to work with during round-ups.

Ennemaborg is an old estate, now owned and managed by the Groninger Landschap. It is a very interesting area as it was the first project area on natural grazing (all year round grazing without additional feeding), using Konik horses as substitutes for the extinct wild horse. It started already in 1981, therefore it is probably the first rewilding area in Europe! ‘Konik’ is the Polish word for small horse, as they originate from Poland. The Koniks, are uniform and have beautiful gray colours with a dorsal stripe and most of them carry some zebra striping on the legs. They are primitive and robust, and thus very suitable for natural grazing. The nature reserve is not very big, just 170 hectares, however, very beautiful, and the choice to use horses for the management has paid off. It now holds high biodiversity values and is appreciated by the many visitors. But as the area is small, it gets overpopulated with horses and every year the horses need to be rounded up, and the surplus removed.

Every fall, I get a call from the Groninger Landschap. In 2011, it was Silvan Puijman, the regional manager. “Hi Joep, I have surplus horses and they have to go before the winter”. So work to do. Many phone calls and many e-mails to many countries followed, and as time passed, winter was nearing and I had not yet found a solution. I called Silvan and explained the situation – “several options but nothing concrete”. Silvan knows it is not always easy to find a new home for 30 horses at once. Slaughtering them is an easy option, but not a nice one, and for Silvan, the last option. He agrees to keep them through the winter and give me more time for my search.

During a bison conference in September 2011 I met again my bison friend Fernando Moran, president of the European Bison Conservation Center from Spain. He passionately told me about the possibilities for rewilding and bison re-introduction in his home region, the Cantabrian Mountains. He invited me to start a ‘rewilding project’ together. I should come and see this magnificent area with my own eyes, he told. So in October 2011, I spent 3 days travelling the Cantabrian Mountains with Fernando. I also met with Joaquin Morante, a bear specialist, who joined us for a part of the trip. The area is indeed magnificent; lovely mountains, a varied landscape, beautiful oak forests, and remote wild areas. So Fernando did not have a hard time to convince me this is a great place for rewilding. In the heart of the area, away from everything, with a 360 degree view, seeing a big group of rutting Red deer below us, surrounded by autumn colours, I truly got a feeling of wilderness. These are the kind of places were my heart starts pumping faster and I feel alive. It was there that Fernando, Joaquin and I looked each other in the eyes and said “yes, let’s do it” and decided to start our own rewilding project in Cantabrian Mountains.

After the farming humans arrived and settled down in the valleys around the Cantabrian Mountains, maybe 5.000 years ago, they started herding sheep and goats in the mountains. Soon after that the original, native large herbivores where either pushed out or became extinct, the remaining ones could only survive in very low numbers. Before human settlement, the area must have been flourishing with large herbivores like horses, aurochs, bison, red deer, chamois and ibex. The proof of that can still be seen on the many amazing pre-historic rock paintings in the region, made by the hunter-gatherers that lived here before the farming man arrived. But now it is the people and their domestic livestock that are leaving the area. Farmer’s sons no longer want to work as shepherds and stockbreeders. 5.000 years of a culture based on pastoralism is coming to an end, a process we can witness in most of the marginal rural areas in Europe.

With no successors and reduced subsidies, people leave the area. Almost all livestock is now gone, leaving the mountains an empty place. Carnivores like wolves and bears, and scavengers like vultures are left without food. Bears, in search of food, move into the valleys, still occupied with people and cause conflicts. The grazing and browsing native large herbivores are either extinct or in too low numbers, and can’t (yet) take over the role of the domestic livestock. So bush encroachment is happening all around, leading to an extreme forest fire risk. In 2011 over 200.000 hectares of forest and shrublands were burned by fire in Spain, mainly in former livestock grazing areas.

We wanted our project to be innovative and a pilot on human and large mammal co-existence. Starting a rural development based on cherishing nature and restoration of the total guild of native large herbivores, large carnivores and scavengers, to bring benefit and profit to the local people and give young people here a new future. Since horses have always been a key species in the ecosystem, they are also a key element in our project. The horses will fulfil a multifunctional task in the Cantabrian Mountains. Through grazing they will open up vegetation which will benefit many species e.g. fruit carrying shrubs that will benefit the bears, their excrements will attract many beetles, also good food for the bears. And when horses die, their meat will not be wasted, but eaten by the bears, wolves and other scavengers like vultures. Both horses and bears will make the mountains lively and liveable again.

Previous stockbreeders and shepherds becoming guardians of the wild large herbivores is one of our new innovative approaches. In our model the stockbreeders will be trained and start working on the conservation, research and monitoring, and made responsible for the well being of the wild- and semi-wild herbivores. When wolves eat the large herbivores, these people will monitor it, instead of using poison to kill the wolves. We propose turning livestock subsidies into wild large herbivore subsidies. Local people will be trained to guide the tourists to see the horses and bears and to host and feed their guests, of course. For the first time since Neolithic (new stone age) times stockbreeders and shepherds will no longer be the enemies of wild large carnivores and herbivores, but host them just as warmly and friendly as their human guests. The large wild mammals will be their geese with golden eggs.

Since my first visit last year a lot has happened. Anti-poaching and anti-poisoning projects, using poison detecting dogs, were implemented. Mobile bee hives were placed to assist natural pollenisation, as without pollenisation there are no fruits for the bears. Transhumance were made, with sheep and goats, to the area, in order to stop bush encroachment and to assist the wild herbivores until the numbers of (semi-)wild herbivores are high enough so they can do the job themselves. We want the large herbivores to reach these natural densities as soon as possible. During the coming months I will send around another hundred horses to our young rewilding project there. Several eager landowners where found, thanks to hard work from Fernando and Joaquin, to participate in the project, totalling now 1750 hectares, all connected. 17 bison where brought here in June 2012, 3 Eurasian wild horses (Przewalski) in September 2012, and now another 27 Konik horses.

On 5 December I got up early after a short but good sleep in the barn. The morning was gorgeous, a little frost and a white winter landscape like on a Christmas card. After a short drive we all gathered around the round-pen where the horses where rounded up. What a sight it is to see these beautiful horses all together, frost on their coats and vapor coming out of their nostrils, like fire. We selected groups, so mares and foals would travel together and adult stallions would travel separately to avoid stress and injuries. Since each of us knew what he had to do, we needed little words to do the job and in a few hours we had the horses selected, the microchips checked and the animals ready to be loaded. One of the horses did not have a passport so he had to stay in the Netherlands for another winter. All other papers were in order and the export papers where signed and stamped by noon. There was very little stress among the horses and besides a few rising and biting stallions the loading of the horses went smoothly. The 27 horses where ready to go on their way to Spain.

It was a long drive for the horses, so it was two days later that I got a call from Fernando: “They are great, everybody loved them and applauded when they came out of the truck”. The release ceremony was well attended, media was present and more then 20 neighbours showed up. Several of them showed interest to join the project after having seen the horses. This is good news, as it will help us build a good horse population quickly, which is important for the visitors but also because only high numbers can have the needed grazing and browsing effects on the landscape. Only in high numbers can they keep the landscape open and also provide enough food for carnivores and omnivores like the brown bear. If the bears find enough food in the mountains they are not inclined to come close to human settlements in the valleys. With no conflicts they become more easily accepted and will even contribute, together with the horses, to the local community by attracting visitors. The horses will help the bears and the bears will help the people – and enemies slowly become allies. A win-win situation for wildlife and local people, that is what rewilding is all about.

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