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Rewilding horses in Europe

Mark Hamblin/Wild Wonders of Europe

Rewilding horses in Europe

From domestic breeds to wild herds

Juan Carlos Muños Robredo / Rewilding Europe

Extinct, but not lost

Humans exterminated the wild horse. Rewilding Europe is now helping to bring back the wild horse to where it once belonged, into the European landscapes, where it used to be a vital part of the ecosystem for hundreds of thousands of years.

The last European wild horse died out as late as in 1909. Before that, wild horses roamed through most of Europe’s ecosystems, from deserts, steppes and savannahs to deep forests and high mountains.

It was exterminated and domesticated by our ancestors. Therefore, even though the original wild horse is technically gone, there are still millions of horses around, and some horse breeds to this day carry on most of the gene material of the original wild horse. Many of them also live a semi-wild life already, exposed to wild challenges like food shortage, weather extremes, predators and disease. All of which seems to help bring back and refine the wild, original traits in them.

JUAN CARLOS MUÑOZ ROBREDO

The influence of man

Several of our 21st century horse breeds are amazingly close to the horses that feature in the 15,000–32,000-year-old cave paintings in Chauvet, Altamira and Lascaux or in the rock carvings of the Côa valley. Closer than we might have expected. One reason for there being so many different horse breeds today is that there were already a number of different wild horse types as well. They had adapted to the different climates and food supply in the different corners of Europe. Roughly, there seems to have been a steppe version, an Iberian version, a Balkan mountain version and a European lowland version.

In horses, domestication was an erratic history of taming, human selection, breeding and cross-breeding with wild horses again, living wild for a while and then being re-tamed again when man needed them. All across Europe, several of the local horse breeds have traditionally roamed free in natural areas in a semi-wild state. These horses were expected to find their own food and shelter. This turned out to be a guarantee to preserve important wild traits and appearances, enabling horses to stay fit and alive under semi-wild conditions. The knowledge of how to avoid or defend themselves against predators, the competition between the stallions, how to survive winters, developing coats resistant to rain, snow and ice, were preserved and developed.

Mark Hamblin/ Wild Wonders of Europe

Fit for rewilding

The domestication process of horses did not change their genes as much as it did with many of our other domestic mammals. The absence of strong human selection in favour of natural selection has kept some of the wilder and more original breeds quite fit for a natural wild life.

Rewilding horses means using current and future scientific knowledge to select and conserve the best descendants of the original European wild horse and to maintain free-living populations in modern natural environments. These new wild horses are not necessarily exactly identical to the extinct European wild horse, but are very capable of surviving without human management and regain their lost role in Europe’s ecosystems.

Rewilding horses means moving from domestication towards wildness, from tame to wild, from human care to self-sustainability. When choosing horses for rewilding, it is best to use regional and well-adapted individuals that are still used to living in a feral way.

We have studied 45 different horse breeds and based on a range of criteria we have selected six breeds that are most fit for rewilding in different geographical regions in Europe.

What we are doing

Rewilding Europe is working to bring back free-ranging populations of horses, all across Europe. Currently we are working with six breeds that are fit for rewilding. They are grazing under natural conditions in our rewilding areas in Portugal, Spain, Croatia and Bulgaria.

We work to establish at least five herds of >100 animals before 2022 in rewilding areas that are specifically selected for this purpose.

We use the European Wildlife Bank to expand the number of grazing areas for wild horses in Europe.

In at least one of our rewilding areas, we are working to create a formal ‘status wild’ for wild horses, as an example for other areas in Europe.

We actively support business development around the return of the wild horse, thereby directly linking wildlife conservation with local economies.

We invite all other willing and able partners (landowners, hunters, horse breeders, land managers, scientists, National Parks etc.) to join us and work together with us in this endeavor.

Suitable horse breeds

The European wild horse is officially extinct, but at the same time still present in many different types of feral horses. From Exmoor ponies in Western Europe to Hucul in the Eastern parts of the continent, several primitive horse breeds still have many characteristics of the original wild horse and are suitable for rewilding and regaining their place in European ecosystems. Horses used to live in the wild and in natural social groups are preferred above other breeds.

The horse breeds suitable for rewilding are strong, robust and pony-sized animals with little human intervention in their breeding or selection. Some of them may have ancient, wild genetic traits and many have a feral history. Very often it is a mixture of those two aspects that make them adequate for rewilding.

After a process of rewilding, the founding mix of breeds will no longer be purebred, but will gradually change to rewilded horse types. Rewilding Europe is using these horse breeds in their rewilding areas across Europe.

Symbols of freedom

Wild horses speak to our imaginations. Songs are written about these symbols of freedom and enduring legends exist in many regions of our continent. Their cultural value is beyond doubt, but their impact on the European natural landscape cannot be underestimated.

Sharing our practical experiences with rewilding horses in different parts of Europe, we hope to contribute to the ultimate goal: well-functioning European ecosystems with the wild horse as one of the defining species, adding a new chapter in our special relationship with this noble animal.

Read more about the fascinating story of the horses in the European landscape.

Rewilding Horses in Europe

The wild horse – a keystone species

Together with other natural processes like storms, floods, forest fires and diseases, combinations of large herbivore species can shape landscapes in many of Europe’s habitats, but only if their numbers are significantly high and the species composition sufficiently diverse. Different species occupy different niches and not only compete, but also facilitate each other’s impact on the ecosystem. The sum of their combined impact on the landscape is much larger than the individual impact of one single species.

In this combined grazing, horses play an important role as can be seen in modern-day nature reserves with wild horses. Through their grazing, horses offer space for open land species like bushes, herbs, grasses and the accompanying insects and birds. The enriching impact of horses is benefiting a myriad of other species.

Our main achievements

Landmark study on rewilding horses

In 2014, we produced a report that puts together most of the existing knowledge and experiences with rewilding horses in Europe. It provides background and guidelines and is meant as a ‘living document’ as there are many unknowns about wild horses in Europe. Based on a wide range of selection criteria, the authors proposed a selection of horse breeds that are most fit for rewilding. We support further scientific studies on this subject and are planning to update this study with the newest insights.

Selection of horse breeds for our rewilding areas

Based on the report mentioned above, we have started working with five different horse breeds, that we use in our rewilding areas: Retuerta (Greater Côa Valley), Konik (Rhodope Mountains, Velebit Mountains, Danube Delta), Bosnian Mountain Horse (Velebit Mountains), Karakachan (Rhodope Mountains), and Garrano (Greater Côa Valley).

An array of wild horse grazing sites

So far, we have set up 11 grazing sites for horses in a total of 6100 hectares in the four rewilding areas mentioned above. All horses are still in large fenced areas, except the Konik and Karakachan in the Rhodope Mountains. All of them are prone to predation by carnivores (especially wolves), although they seem to be able to defend themselves very well.

Growing horse numbers

All horses are part of the European Wildlife Bank. Starting with 29 horses in 2012, the numbers are increasing rapidly, with over 400 animals across all the areas by the end of 2019. Population dynamics are monitored closely in each of the grazing sites.

Status wild

The Rhodope Mountains have the only population of free-roaming unfenced horses so far, in total some 197 animals by the end of 2019. Despite the fact that they are not fenced in, the animals are confined to areas where they are living in social herds moving through the landscape in a completely natural way. We are working with the European Commission, the Bulgarian government and local authorities to create a formal, legal wild status for these animals, which would be the first-ever in Europe.

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