Wild horses make Czech comeback

Wild horses in Milovice, photo: CTK

After centuries, wild horses may return to the Czech landscape. Fourteen Exmoor ponies from Great Britain were shipped to the Czech Republic last week to be released in a former military area in Milovice, in Central Bohemia. The project, initiated by the organisation Česká Krajina or Czech landscape, along with the Academy of Sciences, aims to gradually introduce the horses into the Czech landscape. I spoke to Miroslav Jirků of the Czech Academy of Sciences, and I first asked him what made the Exmoor pony the ideal horse for the project:

Wild horses in Milovice,  photo: Michal Trnka
“There were a few important criteria that we considered. The Exmoor pony came out as the most authentic horse breed in Central and Eastern European region.

“According to our knowledge of the extinct wild horse that once lived in Europe, the Exmoor pony may be, just by historical consequences, almost the exact copy of the original wild horse.”

“It is a special breed. It has obviously bred with minimal care for last thousands of years, which is something you cannot find in most other breeds in Europe. “

“Of course there are some horse breeds in Iberia, in the Balkans, in the Danube delta or elsewhere in Europe, which also resemble the wild horses, but we didn’t want to use breeds that live in a very different vegetation zone.”

How come that the Exmoor Pony managed to survive in Great Britain?

“This is a good question and I would say it is due to historical reasons. In short, the Exmoor pony was kept in quite unique conditions.

Wild horses in Milovice,  photo: CTK
“It was never used intensively in agriculture or as a war animal and it wasn’t extensively hybridised with other breeds, which was very common in rest of Europe.

“To a large extent it was due to the frequent wars that spread across the European continent in the past. Just imagine that until WWI, the horse was one of the most important means of war.”

“After every war, many horses that came with the foreign armies were left in a completely different region. So that was one of the main factors that led to a complete admixture of horse breeds in much of Europe.”

When did the wild horse disappear from Czech territory?

“If we talk just about Czech territory, there are records of wild horses, but also wild donkeys, which date back to the Neolithic period. After that we cannot really say.

“The later period, the Eneolithic, some 5500 years ago, was the period when the domestication of horse took place. That’s why we can’t really distinguish in archaeological records the wild and domestic horses.

Wild horses in Milovice,  photo: CTK
“In the past it was quite common to have your horses somewhere in the landscape. If you imagine that this way of keeping horses was common at the onset of horse domestication it was easy for the wild horses to get into contact with the domestic ones.”

“Wild horses may be soon roaming the Czech landscape, because just last week, 14 Exmoor ponies were shipped to the Czech Republic from Great Britain. How exactly were they transported and how long did the journey take?

“The journey took twenty hours and all of the horses travelled on one lorry. Seven of them were from England and the others from a nature reserve in Scotland.

“The two units stayed separately until the export from Great Britain, so the animals don't know each other for long.

“Now they are kept in an acclimation pen, which has two hectares. They will stay there for one month and then they will be released into the main 40 ha pasture that will be extended the following year.”

Wild horses in Milovice,  photo: CTK
How exactly where they captured? I mean I can’t imagine to what extent they are used to people…

Concerning those seven that were from breeding centres, these were easy to collect. I don’t have exact information about how it was in Scotland, but they were most probably collected during the annual gathering that takes place every autumn in Great Britain. This is how the Exmoors are traditionally kept.”

“As I said, there is a minimal influence of breeders, and all breeding interventions take place during one day in autumn. The owners of the herds mark the new foals, select the animals that will stay with the herd and that will be moved to another herd. So I guess in Scotland they were collected this way.”

How did they cope with the journey?

“The guys who brought them said they were completely ok during the whole journey and when the car stopped at the entrance to their new home.”

Wild horses in Milovice,  photo: CTK
“We could hear from the outside that the mares were getting pretty excited. They obviously realised that something was going to happen, because they started to kick the sides of the lorry and vocalize and so on.

“When the door of the lorry opened, there were people on each side of the door. So we made a human corridor for them and they just slowly came out and looked around and continued straight to the pen.”

“It was one of the most beautiful moments for me because within two or three minutes, we could already see them grazing, taking sand baths and so on. So it was obviously not as stressing for them as I would expect.”

Introducing the horses into the wildlife is only one part of the project. What is its chief objective?

“The general objective is the return of herbivores, large specialised grazers like wild cattle, horse, and, if possible, also European bison, that were eradicated by humans.

Illustrative photo: Radio Prague archive
“European nature is facing crisis of biodiversity, simply because the landscape engineers, the big animals, were completely removed from it and there is nobody who would graze old grass and who would trim tree saplings.

“Nowadays we have in our landscape either dense forests or fields or intensively cut or grazed meadows. But these two very different habitats can only host a small portion of the total biodiversity.

“In the last thirty years, the biologists and conservationists realise that not only meadows and forests are important for wildlife and that these wild animals have big potential to maintain at least small parts of the landscape in more “primeval” state.”

Why have you chosen the former military area as the new home for the horses?

“One reason is purely practical. Military areas are hundred percent state-owned, so you deal with one owner only.

Wild horses in Milovice,  photo: CTK
“But the most important reason is that military areas were established roughly in the mid-twentieth century, so that in many of them there are huge areas of landscape that were never affected by agriculture with all the chemicals and heavy machinery.

“Military areas preserved one of the largest areas of unspoiled landscapes in Europe. If we compare them with natural parks or reserves, in many respects they are even more biodiverse and interesting from biological and ecological point of view.”

Will you be monitoring the horses once they are released into the wild?

“The horses will be monitored relatively intensively. This is because at least in Central European region, this is a very unique opportunity to study horses in their natural habitat.

“Some of the horses will get GPS collars so that we are able to monitor how they use the habitat, we will also monitor their food preferences and their manure will be regularly analysed for contents.

Wild horses in Milovice,  photo: Michal Trnka
“But it is important to say that they will be monitored by non-invasive methods. What we want to avoid is any excess handling and manipulation with the horses.

“Of course, as in the UK, we will do the gathering every year to inspect them and have them checked by a veterinarian, but as little as possible handling will be done with the horses.”

My final question, will people have a chance to actually see the horses?

“Yes, the reserve will be normally open to the public. One of our main aims is to show the public and the authorities that projects like this do not change the way the place was used before.

“If people want to go in, they are welcome, if there is a road passing through the reserve, there are gates, which drivers and cyclists can open to let themselves pass. So yes, it will be open.

“Of course I cannot guarantee that people will always able to see the horses but with a bit of patience and some luck, they will.

“We are also planning to build a lookout tower, so people will have a better chance to really see them.”