Polish Ponies to the Rescue

Posted on April 7, 2007 in Journalism

First it was builders, then it was plumbers, now it is ponies. The Polish have been invaluable in recent years, meeting a range of British needs, and the recent arrival of hundreds of Konik horses in Kent looks set to continue this trend. The animals, bred in Poland from the now extinct European Tarpan, are being introduced to Canterbury’s marshlands to help bring back rare birds and wildlife. Daily Telegraph, 7th April 2007

“Koniks do a fantastic job,” says Peter Smith, chief executive of The Wildwood Trust, in Kent. “Their low level grazing means reed beds will soon return, which will provide the habitat to support a wider range of wildlife than at present, such as black-tailed godwits, bitterns and water voles.”

What is good for farmers is not always good for wildlife, he explains. Increasing financial pressures on UK farming means cows and sheep graze the land too intensely for the promotion of wildlife, which needs continuous low pressure grazing.

“The idea of naturalistic grazing has been a passion of mine since I was at university,” explains Smith, aged 36, who started life as a biochemist but packed in science, he says, “When I realised it wasn’t doing anything to save rare species.”

So in 2001 Smith and a former work colleague, Ken West, set up what they describe as the woodland version of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust. Their 40acre discovery park north of Canterbury provides a place where people can learn about the ancient British wildlife that once roamed the countryside – it is home to owls and otters, bees and beavers, wolves and wild boar. But as well as education, the Trust is trying to reintroduce breeds now extinct in the UK – like the Konik, but also the European beaver and others – and use them to manage nature reserves.

“Koniks are wild in the true sense of the word,“ says Smith. They are happy to be left on their own, and their hooves, though strong, naturally fall off in the spring. This phenomenon means they are well adapted to living on wetlands, and also keeps vet bills down.

The Koniks’ ancestors, the Tarpans, were living all over Britain until they were hunted to extinction in Neolithic times. They held on a lot longer in central Europe, where the last survivors were found in Poland’s primeval forest of Bialoweiza, in the late nineteenth century. These were kept for a while in zoos, and when the last ones died in 1910 the pure breed disappeared forever.

All was not completely lost, however. Polish scientists noticed that Tarpan-coloured foals – mouse grey, with zebra stripes on their legs and black manes and tails – were being born to their own domestic mares where the Tarpan once lived. And, over several generations, they successfully bred back a horse with similar characteristics – hardy, robust and self-reliant – called the Konik. (Tarpan means ‘horse’ in Kazakh/Turkic. Konik means ‘small horse’ or ‘pony’ in Polish – they are rarely more than 13 hands tall.)

Some of these Koniks survived World War II, after which the communists looked after them because of their nationalistic symbol in Poland. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, conservationists transported them to national parks across mainland Europe, where they are now widely used on wetland grazing projects. It was in Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire, in 2001, that The National Trust became the first of what are now a handful of users in the UK.

“The Canterbury meadows are a very traditional landscape, but we haven’t made the most of them,” says the City Council’s Anna Palmer, the other main partner in the Whitehall Meadows project. With the help of the Koniks, she explains, the council are looking to recreate the atmosphere in the paintings of the Canterbury-born artist, Thomas Sidney Cooper (1803-1902). From a footpath running through the project, people will be able to enjoy the River Stour and the horses grazing. And, in the long term, it is hoped rare species such as the marsh orchid and ragged robin will reappear.

“We used to have rivers that flooded and meandered, creating ox-bow lakes,” says Peter Smith. “Now, because of housing and other developments, we’ve stopped that. Everybody wants a static river, which is no good for developing wildlife.” But having the mix of habitats that the Koniks will allow is perfect for re-creating a nature reserve. The horses will eat the grass and maintain the area; they need little care or attention; and it won’t be necessary for humans to cut or manage anything.

“The project proves a good balance,” says Palmer. “It creates an attractive landscape for visitors; we are working in a modern way, with the Koniks; and we are recreating a traditional British landscape.”

For more information – Wildwood Trust. Tel 0871 7820081. www.wildwoodtrust.org

Knights and Nazis

The Tarpan featured heavily in the folklore surrounding the Teutonic Knights, a crusading military order of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The attempted recreation of an apparently superior breed caught the interest of the Nazis. After the invasion of Poland, whole herds of Koniks were stolen and transported back to Germany, who then began their own genetic experiments. These were killed and eaten by the starving populations of Berlin and Munich at the end of the Second World War.

© Robert Bullard. Not for reproduction without prior permission

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