Konik horses find a new home in the Danube Delta

Earlier this week two families of Konik horses were released on the Ermakov Island in the Danube Delta by Rewilding Europe and their local partner Rewilding Ukraine. The animals were brought to the Danube region from Latvia as part of Rewilding Europe’s ELP-funded project which is working to preserve the island’s mosaic landscapes and biodiversity.

The new group of Konik horses join a group of eight water buffalo recently released on Ermakov Island. Photo credit: Andrey Nekrasov.

Two families of Konik horses are now roaming Ermakov Island in the Ukrainian part of the Danube Delta rewilding area. Having made the short journey from the nearby village of Orlovka, the 23 animals were released on June 25.

The release on Ermakov Island was the last step in a long journey for the Koniks. The animals  travelled around 1800 kilometres from Latvia to Orlovka at the end of March – the first time that Konik horses had been translocated into the delta. Since then the herd has already grown in size, with four foals born on Ukrainian soil. After their arrival in Orlovka the animals were kept in quarantine for nearly 3 months until their relocation to Ermakov.

“These large herbivores will play a very important role in the Ermakov ecosystem,” says Rewilding Ukraine team leader Mykhailo Nesterenko. “Like the extinct wild Eurasian horse known as the Tarpan, from which they are descended, Koniks are robust and well-adapted to living in wild conditions. They can survive harsh winters and defend themselves against predators.”

The shipment of Koniks to Ermakov is the second herbivore recent release on the island. At the end of May, a herd of eight water buffalo was brought to the island by Rewilding Ukraine. These animals have acclimatized well and are already having a beneficial impact on their new environment. In the next few weeks another ten water buffalo are scheduled to arrive in Ermakov from the Ukrainian region of Transcarpathia.

Konik horses are hardy herbivores and their browsing behaviour will allow new vegetation to flourish. Photo credit: Andrey Nekrasov.

Together with other natural processes such as storms, forest fires and flooding, guilds of large herbivores have the potential to reshape landscapes across Europe. But for this to happen, their numbers need to be sufficiently high enough and the species composition sufficiently diverse. Occupying different ecological niches, different herbivore species not only compete, but also facilitate each other.

“Unlike bovines (such as cattle and buffalo), which are typical grazers, Konik horses also browse vegetation,” explains Nesterenko.  “A combined approach, however, means the combined impact of wild bovines and equines (horses) on the Ermakov landscape will be far greater than the impact of just one of these herbivorous species.”

Through their grazing, horses offer space for open land species like bushes, herbs, grasses and the accompanying insects and birds. As well as regulating vegetation, it is expected that these large herbivores will also attract tourists to this picturesque landscape. Ermakov Island was restored to its natural state around ten years ago under the project of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). At present it is one of the richest biodiversity areas of the Danube Biosphere Reserve. The island’s concessioners, together with Rewilding Ukraine, are planning to develop the tourism infrastructure and make Ermakov an attractive location for ecotourism in the future.