The reserve for wild horses has bloomed. Botanical research has identified 111 flowering species in a mere two weeks

2021 - 07 - 09

Since its establishment near Milovice not far from the capital of Prague in 2015, the reserve for wild horses and other large ungulates has undergone such a positive transformation that is hard to believe. The original neglected land of a former military area full of illegal dumps dominated by a few species of aggressive grasses has been gradually replaced by species-rich pastures.

Their diversity surprised even the scientists who conducted surveys in the location in the past weeks. “Although evaluating all the data will take longer, it can now be said without exaggeration that the project of grazing large herbivores represents one of the most successful achievements ever in the field of large-area management of the non-forest landscape in the Czech Republic. Just in the space of two weeks we recorded over one hundred flowering entomophilous (insect-pollinated) species of plants”, pointed out Stepan Janecek from the Faculty of Science of Charles University in Prague.

He appreciated not only the multitude of flowering species but also the diversity of the habitats which wild horses, European bison and back-bred Eurobars have managed to create. “The activity of large ungulates has resulted in the formation of a unique mosaic of species-rich dry broad-leaved grass covers with elements of the grass covers of mesophilic meadows and small disrupted areas that constitute natural habitats of ruderal vegetation, on dozens of hectares. It is not only the actual grass covers but also these exposed places that are becoming refuges for endangered taxa that are disappearing from our agricultural landscape”, emphasised Janecek, continuing: “So, the grazing of large herbivores turns out to be a very efficient tool for protecting, restoring and taking care of naturally valuable meadow biotopes”.

The counting of the insect-pollinated plants currently in bloom was part of an extensive botanical-entomological research project focusing on plants and their pollinators that is taking place on pastures for large ungulates in the former military training area of Milovice. “Knowing that we will surely get to 50 species was exciting in itself. So, in the days that followed we joined forces to draw up a list of flowering herbs from those parts of the pastures where we are carrying out field work at the moment. In the end, we’ve found out that a total of 111 species are in bloom in the reserve, which went far beyond our expectations”, added Miloslav Jirku from the Biology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Based on his words, this is certainly not a comprehensive list though. “We’ve definitely overlooked a number of fairly rare species that are found in smaller numbers. In addition, many rare species, including some species protected by law, were not in bloom at the time of counting or were just before flowering. For example, the protected purple milk-vetch finished flowering several weeks ago. By contrast, the star gentian and the purple mullein were only getting ready for flowering during the counting”, remarked Jirku.

The scientists emphasise that the 111 species that have been counted do not represent a complete list of the local vegetation for another reason. The thing is that the list does not include grasses or other plants pollinated by wind. It is flowers in particular that are key to the biodiversity of the site. “A great number of flowering species producing nectar and pollen is important for the functioning of healthy populations of butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Plants and pollinators have undergone millions of years of evolution together and have adapted to one another. Ultimately, various insect groups or even individual insect species specialise in certain plant groups and, by contrast, plants have adapted with their colour and overall morphology of flowers to certain groups of pollinators”, pointed out Jirku, adding: “If a plant-pollinator relationship is to work, the proboscis must fit into the flower like a key into a lock. That’s why most insect species visit only certain plant species and genera. So, it is true that the greater the variety of nectar-producing herbs that grow and bloom at a site, the more insect species can live there”.

Abundantly flowering natural meadows have confirmed that landscapes tended by indigenous species of large ungulates is an effective and efficient method of nature management. “The positive results of grazing large ungulates significantly exceed not only our expectations but also the expectations of botanists, entomologists, ornithologists and other experts”, stated Dalibor Dostal, director of the conservation organization European Wildlife, which is involved in the establishment of the reserve for large ungulates.

At locations where large ungulates graze, the scientists appreciate both the extent and speed of the positive change. “It shows that the grazing of large herbivores clearly has a positive impact on the state of the local ecosystem”, said botanist Milan Chytry from the Faculty of Science of Masaryk University in Brno. “Before 2015, there was a dense cover of a small number of tall grass species here that had displaced the majority of flowering herbs. The introduction of grazing has rapidly changed this biologically undesirable state, and today there are flowery grass covers with scattered shrubs in vast areas here”, Chytry continued.

A similar type of extensive grazing landscape was common in central European lowlands long ago, providing a biotope for a great number of plant species. “After the majority of pastures were abandoned during the 20th century, the landscape began to become overgrown and many plants and insects dependent on them slowly vanished. These species are gradually coming back to Milovice today. What is remarkable about this is the fact that the conservation organisation has succeeded in restoring the ecosystem and maintaining it within a short time at minimal cost. It is an excellent example for similar projects at other sites”, added Milan Chytry.

The large herbivore reserve, dubbed the European Serengeti, was created in the former Milovice military area in 2015. It became the first place in the world to provide a joint home for three key native species of large European herbivores: wild horses, European bison and back-bred aurochs. The project has been rewarded with several prestigious prizes, such as the 2020 SDG award (for sustainable development goals) in the Climatic Change category.

Photo: Michal Köpping

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