Konik horses can play a significant role in shaping plant diversity in protected meadows, a review has concluded.
The ancient Polish breed of horse, considered the last domesticated descendant of forest tarpan, can increase the number of plant species and improve the usefulness of the sward.
However, Konik grazing does not ensure complete protection against undesirable species in enclosed grasslands. Also, their long-term influence on such habitats is still unclear.
Anna Chodkiewicz, with the Department of Agronomy at Poland’s Warsaw University of Life Sciences, set out in her review to explore the advantages and disadvantages of Konik grazing on enclosed grasslands, which are protected nature areas.
Chodkiewicz, writing in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, notes that large herbivores have contributed to the creation of the open and semi-open landscape of European meadows and pastures throughout the ages.
They continue to play a key role in pasture management. Indeed, without mowing or grazing, many habitats would not even exist, she says.
Ending mowing and grazing in many habitats triggers the process of pasture-to-forest succession. This overgrowing results in a loss of plant and animal diversity.
“Grazing, especially primitive breeds of cattle and horses, is a process that constitutes an example of active protection tools used in non-forest ecosystems.”
She notes that, despite the rising popularity of Koniks, relatively little is known about their diet preferences and their impact on the structure and species composition in swards.
“Primitive breeds of cattle and horses are particularly predestined for grazing in valuable nature areas,” she says.
“Due to their features they are very well-adapted to a free-roaming lifestyle and may stay on pastures throughout the year almost without any human involvement whatsoever.
“Although cattle play a key role in the protection of grasslands in Europe due to their easy keeping and the animals’ ability to eat higher plants, horses become more and more frequently used on wetlands, where they may successfully control even low-value swards.”
She notes that the Koniks’ diet is composed of a wide range of plant species. A 2001 study noted 89 taxa being eaten by the animals, with only a few of those being consumed on a daily.
Their sensitive lips enable them to choose particular parts of plants, thus allowing them to eat species having a higher food value than those generally available. Indirectly, this leads to an increase in the biodiversity of the sward.
It is difficult, she says, to unanimously assess the role of Polish primitive horses in preventing pasture to forest succession.
“In general, the herbivores may contribute to a decrease in the development of trees and shrubs in open areas by biting off shoots and rushes, trampling, bark-striping and breaking woody species while passing by or scratching against the trees.
“Although cattle grazing on wetlands in high density seems to be more effective in delaying the succession process, it is the horses that, due to their diet preferences, may prove more successful in terms of controlling the vegetation.”
Low-intensity grazing of Polish primitive horses alone or mixed with cattle is also an effective instrument for the restoration of dry habitats, she says.
However, there are disadvantages to horses grazing grasslands. For example, their gathering near water sources can result in higher concentrations of dung, which can harm the habitat.
Their grazing selectivity can also result in patchiness in pastures.
“Unfortunately, grazing may also have a negative impact on the top layers of the soil, especially where carving paths to the likes of water sources.
“The impact of the animals depends on the soil properties and was higher in wet rather than in dry sites.”
Chodkiewicz concludes that although the collected data on Koniks’ preferences seem to be inconsistent, they nevertheless prove to be an effective tool in restricting the domination of plant species.
“Horses kept in reserves do have an impact on grassland communities, yet solely locally.
“The grazing of Polish primitive horses in low densities may itself be insufficient to protect valuable grassland communities against the secondary succession process.
“However this, in turn, may be compensated for by the fact that it positively affects the biodiversity and the structure of the swards.”
She says grazing intensity should be adapted annually to the vegetation growth.
There is also the question of whether low-quality swards meet the Koniks’ needs.
There is still, she says, a shortage of accurate and reliable studies devoted to the health condition of horses kept in enclosures.
Advantages and disadvantages of Polish primitive horse grazing on valuable nature areas – A review
Global Ecology and Conservation Volume 21, March 2020, e00879 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2019.e00879