An unbelievable transformation. Hundreds of hectares of blooming meadows have replaced species-poor grassland

2022 - 11 - 30

Hundreds of hectares of originally degraded stretches of land in the former Milovice military training area near Prague have undergone an incredible positive transformation over the last seven years. Following the introduction of natural grazing of large herbivores, the species-poor grassland was replaced by species-rich pastures in bloom.  It is the grazing of wild horses, bison and bred-back aurochs in particular that has turned the former military training grounds into a unique reserve nicknamed European Serengeti.

“The results of biological monitoring published in scientific magazines show a marked increase in the biodiversity of the territory due to the blanket positive transformation of natural habitats thanks to the activity of large ungulates. Compared to the initial state of the area before the grazing was introduced, the change is so distinct and extensive that it is evident not only from tables and graphs of scientific articles but it is also visible to the naked eye both for experts and the broad lay public,” explains Miloslav Jirku from the Biology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Originally degraded habitats poor in species where there was a predominance of competitively capable grasses have experienced the restoration of flowery grassland, the renewal of seasonal aspects of meadow covers and the spread of rare plant and animal species after the grazing of large ungulates was introduced.

At the same time, large ungulates do not help restore the site only by grazing. “Grazing of large ungulates is sometimes erroneously considered only as a one type of management, which needs to be complemented with further, technical interventions. In fact, the activity of large ungulates consists of not only the blanket removal of herbal biomass including old uncut grass and plants. It also includes a range of desirable space-time disturbances, such as disturbances of turf in areas starting from several centimetres, which are formed by hoof tracks, up to several square metres in the form of dust pools, as well as linear disturbances in the form of trodden paths, and areas covering up to hundreds of ares in the vicinity of watering places and other spots where the above-mentioned types of disturbance meet. The activity of large ungulates also maintains, in the long term, ecologically functional periodical pools, i.e. a biotope that was mistakenly considered to be entirely dependent on the activity of heavy machinery until recently. The positive effects of large ungulates on the countryside are therefore very comprehensive,” added Miloslav Jirku.

Apart from the visible increase in the abundance of flowering species, the transformation of the site is also demonstrated by an amazing increase in numbers of flagship species found in the area. By 2021, the numbers of young cross gentians on the pasture for large ungulates near Milovice increased by 5,553 per cent and the numbers of adult individuals rose by 367 per cent. The numbers of the mountain Alcon blue increased by 1,700 per cent by last year.

“The reserve for large ungulates shows that all it takes is just restoring natural processes and nature will start recovering very rapidly. The less people intervene in this process, the better,” adds Dalibor Dostal, director of the European Wildlife conservation organisation, which established the reserve for large ungulates in Milovice in cooperation with scientists in 2015.

Additional activities in the reserve are thus limited virtually to remedying the worst impacts of human activity. Removing illegal waste dumps, eliminating non-native invasive species or reducing the numbers of bushes that expand as a result of global climate change and the increasing concentration of nitrogen in the atmosphere originating from industry, transport and production of artificial fertilisers.

The positive changes in the reserve are not observed only by scientists but they are also visible to the naked eye of an ordinary visitor. This is best illustrated by the comparison of images of the same place taken in 2015 and 2022.

Photo: Miloslav Jirku

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