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Horse power on reserves

PUBLISHED: 12:15 20 January 2015 | UPDATED: 12:22 20 January 2015

Konik ponies

Konik ponies

Archant

Sarah Buckingham explains why the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust has enlisted some very special equine help on its nature reserves

Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust has recently taken on an exciting new addition to its grazing stock – a group of konik ponies. The plans is that they will be helping the trust to graze grasslands across Hertfordshire.

The konik pony is descended from a very hardy breed of horse found in the south east of Poland (konik means ‘small horse’ in Polish). These tough, stocky animals played an important role on both sides in the First World War, providing transport for both Russian and German troops. The hardy nature of the animal and its grazing behaviour make it very useful today for nature conservation.

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How koniks help

Grazing animals help to manage grassland nature reserves in the most effective and natural way possible. Centuries ago, people cleared the land of trees to form open spaces for farming. Their grazing animals helped to shape many of our habitats, which developed rich and diverse wildlife communities. Our grassland and heathland habitats were all shaped by human activity and grazing is often the most effective and sustainable way to maintain them and their huge variety of plants and animals.

The choice of livestock used for conservation grazing is very important. Differences in feeding preferences, physiology and behaviour mean that different animals and breeds are needed to manage different habitats. Cattle for example eat long, coarse grasses and produce a tussocky grassland. Sheep prefer to nibble shorter grass and will also eat flowerheads, so good management is imperative to avoid the grassland losing its wildflowers. Ponies on the other hand preferentially graze grasses and generally avoid eating flowering plants, allowing wildflowers to thrive, and will happily eat plants other animals avoid.

The timing and duration of grazing is carefully managed by our reserves team. Both over- and under-grazing will reduce the wildlife value of a habitat, so we produce management plans for each grazed site, outlining the regime required to maintain or restore the habitats found there.

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Managing the ponies
Our konik ponies are wild and we want them to stay that way. However, there are times when we need to be able to handle them; for example to allow a vet or farrier to treat them or in order to lead or transport them. We keep it to an absolute minimum, but it’s important to be able to do so safely and without causing unnecessary stress to the animals.

Recently our reserves team attended a training course with Positive Horsemanship, which taught them a range of wild pony handling skills, including how to put head collars on and how to handle the animals’ feet. Some of the ponies were much more challenging than others! There was also advice on how to load koniks into a trailer, an essential skill for moving them between sites, or to round them up quickly in an emergency.

The training has already been put to good use. Less than two weeks after the course, Rye Meads meadow near Stanstead Abbotts flooded in heavy rain and we had to step in quickly to move the ponies off site. They are now happily grazing their winter pasture at Amwell Nature Reserve in Ware. They will spend the next few months between the railway line and the River Lee navigation, where there is plenty of vegetation. We then plan to move them to another area at Amwell, so that they can graze the field to the south.

Koniks are resistant to harsh climates with an extremely resilient immune system. They digest food better than domestic horses, enabling them to survive on a diet of coarser foods. If you are visiting Amwell, please do not feed them as they are already a little overweight and this can be very harmful to their health.

Our koniks are one of the animals people can support through sponsorship. A wildlife sponsorship makes a great gift too. Find out more at hertswildlifetrust.org.uk/sponsorwildlife

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