Experts suggest using large ungulates to prevent wildfires

The forest fire in the Bohemian Switzerland National Park

While the large-scale forest fire in the Bohemian Switzerland National Park has been nearly extinguished, people are asking how to prevent similar disasters from happening in the future. A group of experts from the organisation Česká krajina say one of the answers could be the reintroduction of large ungulates, such as horses and bison, into the Czech landscape.

The unprecedented forest fire in Bohemian Switzerland, which ravaged more than 1,000 hectares of the park and took more than two weeks to get under control, has drawn fresh attention to the issue of climate change and the dangers it brings, including more widespread and intense forest fires.

Experts from the organisation Česká Krajina or Czech landscape, which have successfully reintroduced wild horses and bison into several locations across the country, say these animals can be a cheap and effective tool to prevent such disasters from happening in the future.

Reintroduced bison in the reservation of Milovice | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

The main reason is that they can graze on old and dry grass that often causes fires not only in the open countryside, but also in forests, says head of the organisation Dalibor Dostál:

“In addition, they can reduce the growth of shrubs by grazing, which is another major cause of fires in national parks and other areas.

Dalibor Dostál | Photo: Česká Krajina

“In addition, the animals blaze trails in the landscape, which can act as a barrier especially against smaller fires and prevent them from spreading further.”

According to Mr. Dostál, the main advantage of using bison and wild horses as a prevention against wildfires is that it is extremely cheap.  The other benefit, he says, is that it’s a natural solution:

“Those ungulates used to be part of the European ecosystem so there is no reason why they couldn’t be reintroduced into national parks.

“The problem with domestic animals is that they have to be treated with various chemicals, which makes the pastures toxic, and that certainly doesn’t belong in national parks and protected areas.”

Mr Dostál points to the experience of the United States and Canada, where large ungulates, such as bison, are already used in open landscape ecosystems precisely as a prevention against large-scale fires.

Wild horses in the reservation of Milovice | Photo: Michal Köpping,  European Wildlife/Česká krajina

“But there is also experience of this in Europe. In Spain, for example, bison, as a native European species, have started to make a relatively strong comeback in the landscape. Spain is one of those areas that has been plagued by fires in recent years, so it's of great importance there.”

Reintroduced bison in the reservation of Milovice | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

Prevention of wildfires is not the only benefit to the landscape of large ungulates. Several years ago, the Czech Landscape organisation reintroduced herds of wild horses and bison into the former Milovice military base with the aim of restoring local biodiversity by letting them feed on invasive plants.

The project has turned out to be very successful, with the number of rare plant and animal species significantly rising, and has since been launched in other parts of the country, including the Podyjí national park.