A miraculous transformation. Wild horses transformed a neglected plot of land full of illegal dumping into an exceptionally valuable area

2016 - 12 - 01
A miraculous transformation. Wild horses transformed a neglected plot of land full of illegal dumping into an exceptionally valuable area

Situated on the outskirts of Milovice near Prague in the former military area of the same name, the neglected plot of land was overgrown with weeds two years ago. Today, thanks to the pasture of wild horses and aurochs, the locality is abundant with protected flowers and animals.

The numbers of two of the rarest of species in the local steppe, star gentian and the mountain Alcon blue, have skyrocketed. Scientists counted 226 blooming clumps of star gentian in half of the pasture, and eggs of the critically endangered butterfly were found in more than half of them. “This just took our breath away,” said Miloslav Jirku from the Biology Centre of the Czech Academy of Science, describing the excellent results no one had anticipated. It is supposed that there are about 500 clumps of the endangered star gentian in the pasture of 40 hectares.

After the wild horses had been introduced, a number of steppe butterfly species began to thrive in the grazing land that have been disappearing uncontrollably in most of the territory of the Czech Republic in the past decades. “There are countless scarce coppers, Reverdin’s blues, and silver-studded blues, relatively large numbers of small blues, and the endangered Meleager’s blue are quite numerous, too,” said entomologist David Ricl.

The pasture is also favoured by very exotic-looking butterfly species such as swallowtails. “The population of the scarce swallowtail has risen interannually most probably as a result of grazing, since ovipositing females look out for low and sunny prune and hawthorn bushes that have been nibbled by animals, and such bushes can be found on the grazing land,” Jiri Benes from the Biology Centre of the Czech Academy of Science added. The Old World swallowtail is also plentiful in the pasture, where it lays its eggs in September. Among invertebrates, critically endangered fairy shrimp were spotted in the grazing land this year, too.

The pasture also provides shelter to rare vertebrates. Critically endangered species of reptiles that are protected all over Europe have numerous populations there. These include harmless smooth snakes, grass snakes, sand lizards, and slowworms. Numerous reptiles along with rodents are the prey base of several protected carnivorous birds of prey and song birds.

“Based on the results of our monitoring, we can say that the pasture agrees with several species protected by law. One of these is the corn bunting, which has the largest population in the Czech Republic here. Both of our species of red-backed shrike are numerous here. These birds are known for skewering their prey, such as insects or lizards, on thorny branches,” said Miloslav Jirku, describing other species that thrive thanks to the pasture of wild horses. Barred warblers, skylarks and chats benefit from the arrival of large ungulates. Two pairs of critically endangered wrynecks have brought up their numerous fledglings this year thanks to the work of conservationists.

Partridges also procreated successfully in the pasture in both seasons. “This is very pleasing indeed, as partridges used to be very common, but have been disappearing due to inconsiderate farming in many European countries in recent decades,” Miloslav Jirku pointed out. The skies above the pasture have become hunting grounds for swallows and swifts, which are attracted by the small insects which accompany large herbivores, but also for birds of prey, such as kestrels and harriers, which like the well-arranged mosaic-like grazed terrain and the abundance of small vertebrates. The natural appearance of a predator that is new to central Europe, the jackal, is also of interest. The population of hares, which are having an increasingly hard time surviving in the common landscape, has become very numerous, too.

Thanks to the grazing of large ungulates, the problematic weed bushgrass is retreating. Only a year ago, this species covered nearly the whole area of what is currently grazing land, and had pushed away most blooming plants. Colourful blooming flora with a host of plants providing nectar are becoming more prominent and are replacing the monotonous and meagre bushgrass vegetation. “These blooming plants are important for insects, which are a staple food for many other inhabitants of the local steppe. Rarer floral species with rather unusual names appear, such as Lotus maritimus, Nonea pulla and the autumn crocus. Other species that had been wilting under a layer of old grass for a long time came into bloom this spring. The pretty cowslip could be an example,” said Miloslav Jirku.

Wild horses and aurochs have turned the originally meagre and monotonous environment into a colourful mosaic. “Numerous species of flora and fauna, which may often have very different needs, find their habitat in the relatively small area thanks to the varied activity of the large ungulates. A type of environment has evolved here that has no comparable counterpart in the Czech Republic, and which cannot be copied with any other type of management. As biological monitoring has proven, some species which had almost become extinct have managed to return quickly, and this is surely only the beginning,” Miloslav Jirku stressed.

The metamorphosis of the former training grounds of the Soviet army into a paradise for wild horses has been described by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC, Der Standard, prestigious journal Science, and many others. “In a very short time, the reserve has become a role model for nature conservation, which we did not expect when we started the project. And we’re really pleased about that,” said Dalibor Dostal, director of European Wildlife conservation organization.

Photo: Wikimedia / Stefan Lefnaer

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