Amid the ongoing summer heatwave scorching Europe and causing devastating wildfires in Greece, Spain, Switzerland, and other regions, an unexpected ally has emerged in the fight against these fierce blazes – free-roaming horses. Ecologists believe that these equine companions could play a significant role in mitigating wildfire risk in the future.
Recently, the conservation organization Rewilding Spain made a noteworthy move by introducing a herd of 10 Przewalski’s horses to the Iberian Highlands in May. These horses, which belong to an endangered sub-species of wild horses (Equus ferus), once roamed the area around 4,000 years ago, as indicated by ancient cave paintings. The Przewalski’s horses are considered the last remaining wild horses globally and were brought back from extinction in their native Europe and Asia through successful reintroduction efforts in the steppes of Mongolia and other sites, following their existence in European zoos. Thus, their reintroduction to the Iberian Highlands is viewed as a significant boost to the species.
Since their arrival, the horses have been confined to a 17-hectare enclosure, but they will soon be set free to roam across more than 5,700 hectares of public forest. These horses primarily feed on large amounts of grass and shrubby tree leaves, and by doing so, they help reduce the volume of combustible vegetation in the landscape, thereby slowing down the progression of wildfires, according to conservationists.
The Iberian Highlands historically used to be grazed by sheep and various horse species, including the Serrano horse, which roamed freely when not used for agricultural work. However, changes in traditional agriculture resulted in rural depopulation and abandonment of land. As a consequence, the lack of grazing led to overgrowth of vegetation that contributes to more severe and rapidly spreading wildfires.
While the initial group of 10 horses may not have a massive impact on their own, Rewilding Spain has plans to increase their numbers in the future. This move is aimed at establishing a new population, especially considering that these horses form a social group that can interact effectively with the larger landscape, as stated by Pablo Schapira, the team leader of Rewilding Spain.
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Apart from their role in mitigating wildfires, the horses are expected to enhance biodiversity. Through their grazing and browsing activities, they will create a mix of half-open and half-wooded landscapes that are conducive to scavenger species like vultures and carnivores like the Iberian lynx. Additionally, their dung will enrich the soil, further benefiting the ecosystem.
This approach of using grazing mammals to positively impact wildfire-prone landscapes is being adopted in various parts of the world. For instance, in Howth, a suburb of Dublin, Ireland, an endangered native breed of goats has been reintroduced to tackle regular wildfires that pose a threat to habitat and property. Similarly, in Santa Juana, southern Chile, a project called Buena Cabra has employed goats to create firebreaks in the native forest of Bosques de Chacay since 2017, with successful results.
Christopher Johnson, a professor of wildlife conservation at the University of Tasmania, Australia, and lead author of a 2018 paper on rewilding for wildfire mitigation, explains that grazing herbivores significantly reduce the biomass and continuity of vegetation layers, thereby lowering the fire risk. This method helps localize fires and minimize their impact on the environment.
You can watch a YouTube video about this special horse below.