Konik horses (Equus ferus caballus) in the Boynik range of the Eastern Rhodope Mountains, Bulgaria. (Photo: Ron Rotbarth)
It’s nearly August in the Eastern Rhodope mountains, and temperatures are reaching 36 degrees celsius on a daily basis. Since arriving at the beginning of June, I have seen the landscape turn from vibrant shades of green to a rusty brown, interrupted only by the sturdy verdant greens of hardy shrubs and Quercus, Acer, and Paliurus canopies. Frequent brief thunderstorms have been replaced by the stillness of steady heat, and the animals are responding by lying low in the shady groves. The blackberry bushes are plump with fruit, and the local produce is bursting with flavor.
I am here to research the habitat use of a herd of konik horses, who live in a profoundly beautiful mountain landscape called the Boynik ridge. In total, 43 horses roam through expansive pastures and wooded valleys. Ten delightful foals were born this season, all of whom are thriving in the herd. These de-domesticated horses are independent of human intervention, except for their reliance on locals to provide repair and maintenance to the many wells and fountains in the region. These cleverly designed fountains are a testament to the agricultural history of the Rhodope mountains, which have long been home to shepherds and farmers of Turkish and Bulgarian origin. Horses will travel great distances to find water, relying on a keen sense of smell. They remember the finest ponds and wells and pass this information onto subsequent generations; the herd tends to move in fairly predictable patterns to satisfy grazing, shelter, and drinking requirements.
Rewilding in the context of this particular group of konik horses is unique because there are no naturally flowing water courses in the driest months; therefore, local people must cooperate with conservation organizations to ensure the traditional wells function properly. Because there are still herds of cattle and sheep in the region, shepherds have a vested interest in supplying water for their own livestock. The horses share these resources, so monitoring of vegetation supplies, minerals, and clean water is critical. The grasslands along the ridge are fecund and diverse–the cattle and sheep graze differently than the horses, both in technique and in plant selection. As long as the population does not exceed the carrying capacity of the mountains, these animals should be able to coexist without conflict.
This summer I have conducted an inventory of the vegetation in thirty plots across the landscape. These plots were chosen based on the observations of biological expert Hristo Hristov and by data collected from a GPS collar worn by a lead mare in the herd. The plots represent habitats used by the horses over the course of one year, from resting areas under dense forest cover to expansive grasslands scattered with ancient rocky outcroppings. The purpose of the inventory is to get a broad understanding of the types of vegetation preferred by the horses, and to be able to analyze these herbivores’ impact over the long term. The presence of cattle, sheep, and unforeseen environmental and cultural factors must be taken into consideration if the study is to be replicated in the future.
Konik horses grazing on the Boynik ridge. (Sketch: Rachelle McKnight)
I hope to be able to follow the progress of this beautiful herd as they become a part of a bigger research and monitoring project, called “Status Wild.” Their adaptation to the landscape is intricately bound to the ability of farmers and conservationists to work collaboratively to protect and expand their home range, so that they may one day reclaim their ancestral territory in the vast landscape of the Rhodope mountains.
Rachelle is a graduate student in the department of Landscape Architecture at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She hopes to devote her career to the establishment of wildlife corridors and habitat restoration. Her Vimeo website can be found here.