An unexpected benefit. Wild horses help landscape adapt to climate changes

2020 - 02 - 18
An unexpected benefit. Wild horses help landscape adapt to climate changes

Climate changes increasingly influence landscape development. Five extremely arid years in a row that reigned in Central Europe from 2015 have had an impact on the condition of wild nature and agricultural pastures.

Regular monitoring by scientists has proven that pastures where wild horses and other large ungulates graze in the former military area of Milovice, close to Prague, are in significantly better shape than a great deal of other areas in other parts of Central Europe, even after five years of temperature and precipitation extremes. “Grazing land in the reserve for large ungulates was in bloom from spring to autumn. Plants bloomed intensively there even in times where pastures elsewhere in Europe were as dry as Sahel in Africa,” Miloslav Jirku from the Biology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences said. Were it not for this ability to adapt, no vegetation would have remained in the pastures for winter, when it is crucial for their survival.

The natural grazing of large ungulates has proved to be a very efficient tool for landscape adapting to climate changes. It must be said that experts had not anticipated results like these. “Our project was focused mainly on the restoration of biological diversity. Therefore, grazing mainly assists in the return of endangered species of plants, butterflies and other organisms,” said Dalibor Dostal, director of conservation organization European Wildlife. He added: “It turned out that the positive impact of large ungulates on the landscape is much more complex than we had expected. Adaptation of the landscape to climate changes therefore is one of the benefits of the project. And the more we had not anticipated it beforehand, the more valuable the benefit is.”

Scientists believe that large ungulates help restore soil to a great extent. Soil is the key for carbon retention in the landscape. Carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases, is released is smaller quantities, and does not contribute to global warming that much. “Unlike that of many domestic animals and pets, the droppings of large ungulates are free of poisonous substances provided to common livestock in veterinary drugs and antiparasitics. Thanks to this, the droppings of wild large ungulates is not poisonous to dung beetles and other organisms that then remove it quickly,” said Miloslav Jirku, describing the important process.

Dung beetles in particular, who are essential in the removal of droppings, are very sensitive to chemicals. “They are the sole organism that dig droppings deep into the soil, where their young develop. An army of beetles is capable of removing a pile of droppings in several days. It is not mere disposal, but a sophisticated system of nutrient recycling and a natural soil cultivation process. Dung beetles enrich the soil with the organic matter included in the droppings, and simultaneously, they aerate it with the tunnels they create. They not only transport nutrients to plant roots, but they also benefit earthworms and other organisms that live in soil and that are necessary for healthy soil. Insects help the decomposition of the droppings and the transport of nutrients, including carbon, from the surface into the soil,” Miloslav Jirku added.

Scientists claim that healthy soil is absolutely fundamental for the deceleration of climate changes as it can retain a much greater amount of carbon than vegetation. However, compared to other conservationist activities, such as planting trees, improvement in this area has been underestimated to a large extent so far. That was despite the fact that the soil condition is often more important than what grows on its surface. “Growing natural meadows in good and healthy soil is definitely better than an agricultural spruce grove planted in degenerated and exhausted soil,” former Czech minister of environment and expert in soil research Ladislav Miko pointed out. “And vice versa. From a long-term perspective, a high-quality forest improves the quality of soil in most places, whilst intensive use of fields and pastures results in the degeneration of the soil. It is not only a matter of the use of chemicals, but often a matter of the use or removal or organic matter and the use of mineral fertilizers,” Miko added.

He thinks that as agriculture intensifies, organic matter in the soil decomposes without being replenished sufficiently, and this results in a decrease in the organic matter content of the soil, i.e. of organic carbon. This negative process is more intense in high temperatures and lower humidity levels. “Therefore, climate change only amplifies this effect,” Ladislav Miko stressed.
In low intensity pastures, like in the large ungulate reserve, the soil builds and maintains its complex structure. It can provide for a lower number of animals, but it is powered by the energy of the sun. On the other hand, soil has a simplified and degraded structure in intensively used agricultural pastures. Though it can provide for more animals in the short-term, it largely depends on a great amount of human-supplied fossil energy in the form of mineral fertilizers and the operation of machinery, without which the soil is incapable of maintaining its productivity.

Natural nutrients from animal excrement are gradually recycled in the soil in the large herbivore reserve, so the care for soil is sustainable in the long-term, and independent of people. It is a self-sufficient system. Organic matter does not need to be supplied from elsewhere. What the pastures and their inhabitants really need, usually grows and stays there. Organic matter does not need to be ploughed into the soil as it gets there by itself. This is a self-sufficient system that works thanks to the food chain from healthy soil and the plants that grow from it, all the way through large herbivores and dung beetles, to earthworms and other soil organisms.

Thanks to these processes, the soil is significantly richer in organic substances, which among others allows better water retention in the landscape, and enables soil to retain water from more frequently occurring torrential rains. The soil can function as a kind of sponge that is capable of absorbing water when needed. On the other hand, the soil in intensive agricultural pastures and fields gradually degrades and loses its structure. Soil made healthier by the activity and life of large herbivores has other advantages, too. It is more aerated and has a better capability to decrease the impact of high temperatures during stifling summer months.

According to experts, the importance of soil for nature is significantly greater than a great deal of people realise. “Soil is the basic constituent of the food and environmental pyramid. If it is not healthy and does not contain a sufficient amount of organic matter, the amount of energy available to higher levels in the pyramid will decrease significantly. As a result, rare species may become extinct, and the numerous will reduce in quantity,” Ladislav Miko concluded.

Many times, soil is a much more important storage of carbon than vegetation. It holds true in this respect that healthy soil retains a greater amount of carbon than soil damaged by improper farming.

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