The grazing of large ungulates has saved an endangered flower. Its numbers have increased by 367%, with the numbers of young plants rising by thousands of per cent

2021 - 11 - 30

The rare plant, cross gentian, characterised by its violet-blue flowers, ranks among endangered species in Central Europe. The recipe for its rescue was tested by scientists and conservationists in the former military area of Milovice near Prague. After a reserve of large ungulates was established in the location, the numbers of this endangered flower species have increased by an unbelievable 367 per cent. In addition, the numbers of young plants have even increased by more than five thousand per cent.

The counting of cross gentians done by scientists this autumn has brought its results. “The population of gentians growing in a 16-hectare model area on a pasture near Milovice shows literally a meteoric rise compared to 2016. On this pasture maintained by the grazing of wild horses and bred-back aurochs, the number of adult plants has risen from 198 to 924, i.e. by 367%,” said Miloslav Jirku of the Biology Centre of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

In terms of the population’s condition, however, not only the number of adult flowering plants but also the presence of young plants, seedlings are important. “In 2016 we only counted 55 seedlings, while there were 3,109 of them this year. We didn’t expect the number of the seedlings rising by an unbelievable 5,553 per cent even in our wildest imagination. We counted more than 100 seedlings in a few places, and even over 300 of them in one case,” Miloslav Jirku stated.

Five years ago, a large part of the Milovice pasture was a site where gentians were only surviving in dense long-stemmed aggressive grass covers. In the past years, however, the activity of large ungulates in approximately 6–9 tens of hectares has resulted in the restoration of colourful flowery meadows with a significant representation of short-stemmed grasses, which, by contrast, comply with the needs of gentians. “In addition, the disruption of turf by their hooves constantly results in the formation of small spots with no vegetation. These are necessary for the gentians to reproduce because it is only and solely on them that seeds can germinate and seedlings can survive afterwards. It is evident that the gentians have managed to utilise the biotopes restored by the grazing of large ungulates, intensive reproduction has been taking place and the population has been rising sharply,” Miloslav Jirku appreciates the benefit of the grazing of large ungulates.

The population of the gentian in the second part of the reserve, which is maintained by the grazing of wild horses together with European bison, has increased similarly although not so markedly. The number of adult gentians has risen there from 287 to 830, i.e. nearly by 190 per cent, and the number of seedlings has risen from 103 to 603, i.e. by 485%. A noticeably slower rate of growth of the population on grasses is owing to harsher conditions as there are markedly drier soils in this part of the reserve.

By contrast, there are worrying figures concerning the presence of gentians beyond this part of the reserve for large ungulates. Scientists counted a mere six young plants there. “The population is ageing there, its reproduction is minimal and it is only a matter of time when it ceases to exist owing to further overgrowing. “Just a negligible number of young plants was also recorded in other sites that are not being grazed in the former military area,” Miloslav Jirku pointed out.

“The fact that the grazing of large ungulates has led to a significant increase in the number of gentians is also important because further degradation of vast spaces of the former military area continues outside the reserve for large ungulates. Thanks to the grazing of large ungulates, the endangered gentians obtained a necessary refuge where they can survive in the long term,” said Dalibor Dostal, Director of the European Wildlife conservation organisation, which established the reserve in 2015.

Along with the cross gentian, scientists also map the endangered Alcon blue, whose caterpillars can only develop on the gentian. “Each point inhabited by gentians is checked for the presence of eggs of blue butterflies, whose empty shells remain on the gentians until winter, when the aboveground parts of the gentians die. Five years ago the blue butterfly laid eggs on 29–55 per cent of the gentians in various places of the former military area, and it was 70–90% this year. So, one of the rarest butterflies of Central Europe also thrives in the reserve thanks to large ungulates,” emphasised Miloslav Jirku.

The reserve for large ungulates was established in the former military area in 2015. It is maintained by the grazing of herds of wild horses, originating from Exmoor, England, European bison and bred-back aurochs. It currently extends in an area of 350 hectares.

Photo: Michal Köpping

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