In April of 2018, almost a year after we acquired Bwlch Corog, we welcomed three beautiful Konik horses to the wildwood. These mares were joined two months later by another two mares and a stallion.
Cambrian Wildwood is a project to restore habitats and species: both of these considerations are fulfilled by restoring large herbivores to the landscape, as they play such an important role in the landscape, driving the development of habitats through grazing and other activities. Grazing and browsing produces the mosaic of wood pasture, grassland, heathland and bog, with more diversity of plants and more flowers. Without grazing, the landscape becomes dominated by matted layers of dead grass which prevents other plants from growing. This was clearly demonstrated in the seven years without grazing at Bwlch Corog.
We want to introduce wild animals where possible, but with the primitive horse or tarpan and aurochs extinct in their wild form, we have to look at their domestic relatives. Domestic horses (Equus ferus caballus) are descended from the tarpan (Equus ferus ferus), the primitive wild horse that populated Europe, Asia and North America. The domestic breeds are therefore the same species but a different sub-species to the tarpan. The Przewalski horse (Equus przewalskii) is a different species native to the Asian steppes.
There is a good deal of variation between different domestic breeds, and the main factor for the project is choosing the breed with the characteristics most closely matching the wild horse. The Konik fulfils this role, showing a ‘blue dun’ colouration, a black dorsal stripe, stripy backs of legs, and structural features characteristic of the tarpan.
Along with these features, the Konik is extremely hardy and can thrive on tough vegetation, making it highly suited to living as a wild herd and well matched to the conditions. It grazes purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea), which covers most of the site. The Konik is very efficient at storing fat reserves in periods of abundance of food to enable it to see through the winter, it does not require hoof trimming, and is known for its sturdy health and longevity.
We seriously considered Exmoor, whose origins are unknown and which could be a direct descendent of tarpan evolving in Britain. However, there are a number of complications and costs associated with procuring and keeping Exmoors. We also considered the Welsh Mountain pony, in particular the Carneddau: this breed is a mixture of more modern domesticated breeds, so less suitable on the grounds of proximity to the original wild horse, while it does have a well-established association with the uplands of Wales.
The horses were offered to us without cost, from herds in Ceredigion and Sussex. The name ‘Konik’ is the Polish word for ‘small horse’. The breed was created prior to the nineteenth century by farmers around Białowieża Forest in Poland who captured and domesticated tarpan from the forest, probably cross-breeding with a local domestic breed. Konik was identified as a breed early in the twentieth century and has been valued since on the basis of its closeness to the primitive horse.
In terms of welfare, our horses are not in any way neglected despite their feral lifestyle. We have a diligent husbandry regime with regular monitoring to ensure that the horses are in good condition and displaying healthy behaviour. We are registered with a veterinary service which is available for routine health checks and emergencies. We take our commitments to their welfare very seriously.
The herd has produced five foals so far. This is a modest population growth, so they are not likely to exceed the capacity of the site for many years. They are a gentle, calm breed and provide a welcome sight to visitors of the wildwood.
One of our main objectives is to increase tree cover. Although they browse young trees, the horses also create conditions for tree regeneration by disturbing vegetation and exposing the soil. With effectively no internal fencing, they have uninterrupted access to 350 acres at Bwlch Corog, so it is interesting to observe the interplay between tree cover and browsing. Specifically, our tree planting strategy takes into account the presence of herbivores. See article No Fence Tree Planting.
For more detail about the characteristics and history of the breed see the paper Polish Konik Horse – Characteristics and Historical Background of Native Descendents of Tarpan