“How are the Konik horse from the Dutch Millingerwaard doing in Latvia?” questioned FREEs Fokko Erhart last summer. He visited this Baltic state to find the answers to his questions. He was well received and soon learned that the natural horses have stolen the hearts of the local people. Pictures of the wild horses our found numerously; on information stands, brochures and leaflets and on the internet. Fokko came face to face with the first herd near the town of Julgave, 50 km from the capital Riga. He spoke with local site manager Einars Nordmanis who provided him with the latest news on the animals.
Quick analyses learned the between 1999 and 2012 a total of 336 Dutch Konik horses were transported towards Latvian wilderness areas. Today populations have doubled and the horses can be found in 28 different nature areas. During his travels Fokko visited several of these areas.
In August 2007 16 horses arrived near the town of Jelgava, at the shores of the river Leilupe. Today the herd numbers 43 individuals. Nearby within the Kemeri National Park, herds also grow steadily. Here the first 12 animals arrived in 2005, followed by another 21 individuals in 2010. Now in 2013 the herd comprises 70 horses.
Growth of the Latvian herds doesn’t happen without a fight. Near the end of last winter (which was also long and harsh according to Latvian standards) 9 animals perished near Jelgava. Even feeding with over 15,000 kg of hay couldn’t prevent this. Severe winters also influence reproduction. Only 3 foals were born in the area last spring. Wolves haven’t reached this area yet, so they can’t be blamed.
Wolves can be found with the Kemeri National Park, which houses a healthy population of these large predators. Attacks on the wild horses have been reported but it’s hard to say how big their influence is on population growth. During his visit Fokko counted 10 foals of last spring on a herd of 70 horses, and 5 calves on a herd of 35 rewilded cattle. A big difference compared to the Dutch situation where herds grow annually about 25 to 30%. With these rates the herd Kemeri herd should comprise about 15 to 20 foals, but obviously this is not the case.
Strangely densities in Latvia are a bit higher compared to the Dutch Millingerwaard. Here in Latvia densities number around 1.5 hectares per animal, while in the Netherlands densities of about one individual on 3 hectares are more common. These higher densities are applied despite of much tougher winter. First snow usually falls in October and from December till the end of February all the land is covers by a white blanket of snow. Temperatures of minus 30 are not uncommon.
The Dutch situation learns that already at a density of about one animal per 2 hectares, we have to start supplying additional winter feeding. Why this is different in Latvia stays unexplained.
The Latvian Konik horses owe their success to their grazing effects. A birder at Liepaje told proudly that the introduction of the Dutch horses and cattle completely changed the environment. Before their arrival the area was overgrown by shrubs and tall weeds of over 1.5 meters high. Only one breeding pair of whinchat was found during those days. Today vegetation is short grazed and meadow birds such as black-taild godwit, lapwing and redshank have returned. A quick vegetation scan learn that species like pink primroses, dropwort and Siberian iris also returned to the area.
Einars told proudly that he counted 30 calling males of the globally threatened corn crake in the 70 hectare large grazing are in Jelgava. The great snipe is now an example species of the area, shown on a local information panel. To experience all of this, you definitely have to visit the Latvian wilderness.