Rewilding Europe | Roaming horses in the Danube Delta

Rewilding Europe | Roaming horses in the Danube Delta

Rewilding Europe. A European initiative actively promotes rewilding and biodiversity in endangered natural landscapes in Europe. Horses play a significant role as equine conservationists in landscape maintenance – their grazing behaviour makes them particularly well suited for this. A herd of twenty Konik horses had been released in December 2020 onto an island in the Ukrainian part of the Danube Delta.

After the relocation of 23 animals to an island in 2019, the new Konik group will help to further develop the natural landscape through grazing. The rewilding initiative will also support the development of nature-based tourism. The Koniks relocated from Latvia at the end of October now roam freely in the Danube Delta and will enrich nature by grazing and with their dung. Unlike cattle such as water buffaloes, Konik horses also skuff the vegetation. The combined impact of wild cattle and the equines on the delta landscape is therefore greater than the impact of just one type of herbivore.

The horses join a herd of 18 water buffaloes. Both herds have acclimatised well to their new environment. Three Konik foals and three buffalo calves have been born. “Following the successful release of Konik horses last year, this follow-up translocation will increase much-needed natural grazing in the Danube Delta,” explains Rewilding Ukraine Executive Director Mykhailo Nesterenko. “The newly released horses will complement the water buffaloes, Konik horses and deer already released and living wild in the delta, with all of these herbivores helping to create more diverse habitats and a richer biodiversity through their grazing.”

Europe’s unique wetland

Where the mighty Danube meets the Black Sea, the river has created a vast delta landscape. The largest wetland in Europe stretches across three nations with a total of 580,000 hectares: Romania, Ukraine, Moldova. It is still amazingly wild, relatively undisturbed and home to many species of birds, especially two species of pelicans, herons, storks, cormorants and terns. The delta is a popular resting area for migrants and also winter grounds for migratory birds from the steppes, forests, tundras further north.

Letea forest, Danube delta rewilding area, Romania
Letea forest, Danube delta rewilding area, Romania – Photo: (c) Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe

The Danube Delta has some of the few remaining grazed mosaic forest landscapes in Europe – the beautiful forest areas of Letea and Caraorman. As fertile aquatic habitats, the areas are home to the greatest diversity of fish species in Europe. The area has unprecedented potential for wetland restoration. In particular, the former polders and lakes can be re-flooded and also can reunite with the dynamics of the Danube river.

Funded by a 2.1 million Euro grant from the Endangered Landscapes Programme, supported by Arcadia, a non-profit fund founded by Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing, Rewilding Europe’s efforts in the transboundary Danube Delta Wilderness Area expanded significantly in late 2018. These efforts, which include the relocation of large grazing animals such as Konik horses, water buffaloes, the wild donkey species Kulan, Hutsul horses and fallow deer, focus on restoring natural landscapes, their natural processes such as flooding and natural grazing, and the associated flora and fauna to at least 40,000 hectares of the Danube Delta in Romania, Moldova and Ukraine.

Rewilding Europe as a process

Rewilding takes time. It is a process that combines two things – genetic and cultural change. It is a radical shift from individual care to a concern for the ecological as a whole where individual suffering is insignificant. The wildlife managers of each project are in charge to decide, depending on the given circumstances, how big the impact might be to influence the natural processes of an area.

Use natural dynamics as a driver of change. As one of the most sparsely populated areas in Europe, the Danube Delta offers a unique opportunity to restore a spectrum of species-rich habitats – from open estuarine systems, naturally grazed grasslands and extensive reed beds to freshwater marshes, coastal lagoons, shallow lakes and riverine forests.

“Rewilding is about trusting the forces of nature to restore land and sea” is how Raquel Filgueiras, Head of Rewilding at Rewilding Europe, describes the process. Cooperating with partners, the Rewilding team is working to significantly improve the ecological integrity and natural functions of 40,000 hectares of wetlands and deltaic areas by applying the principles of ‘rewilding’ at the landscape level. Revitalised and self-managing natural processes, particularly flooding and natural grazing, guide landscape design to drive wildlife return, increased biodiversity and the development of a green economy.

The Danube Delta is one of the case study areas of the three-year GrazeLIFE project. The project evaluates the benefits of different land management models involving domesticated and wild or semi-wild herbivores.

Konik horses dare to enter the water much more than water buffaloes. In 2020, analysis of satellite images showed that the vegetation on Ermakov Island in the Danube Delta has already become more diverse compared to the previous year. This may be related to the introduction of horses and buffaloes. Rewilding Europe will use drones and further monitoring to gain even more insight into the impact of grazing horses and water buffaloes.

More information on the promising initiatives to renaturalise and increase biodiversity in Europe:

The European Safari Company provides travel adventures to the Rewilding Europe areas. The touristic concept was developed to support nature, animal wildlife and the local cultures at those unique places in Europe.

Title image: 23 Konik horses enter Ermakov island in the ukrainian part of the Danube-Delta / (c) Andrey Nekrasov / Rewilding Europe

21. March 2021 Off