Matt Gaw vis­its Red­grave & Lopham Great Fen to see how its pop­u­la­tion of koniks have helped re­store the nat­u­ral land­scape

EADT Suffolk - - Inside -

THEY move slowly, graz­ing silently in the fen. Mouse grey, a black eel stripe runs down their backs, con­nect­ing dark fringes to dark, switch­ing tails. When the skies are heavy it can be hard to see the koniks, their pale flanks al­most be­com­ing one with the white of the clouds. But to­day the sky is clear. A late sum­mer blue that brings with it the chill of au­tumn. A wind that cuts through jack­ets and soughs through reeds.

To­day there are four koniks on Suf­folk Wildlife Trust’s Red­grave & Lopham’s Great Fen. Three mares and a stal­lion, the lat­ter a re­cent ad­di­tion. New blood for the old herd, in­tro­duced to breed. Richard Young, the Val­ley Fens war­den, ex­plains he is still set­tling in. He laughs as he re­calls that when the new male ar­rived he came face-to-face with the mares he had come to cover and was al­most too ter­ri­fied to leave the trailer. Af­ter re­ceiv­ing a few well-placed nips, he has spent much of the past week or so on his own, hid­ing from the girls that are older and big­ger than him, plumped up by sum­mer graz­ing. But now, he is get­ting closer, braver or scent­ing a change in one of the mares, his flanks shiv­er­ing in the sun.

The trust’s use of koniks stretches back to the mid-1990s, when the late Derek Moore was direc­tor of Suf­folk Wildlife Trust. He had seen Koniks in Oost­vaarder­splassen in the Nether­lands, that Serengeti be­hind the dikes, where au­rochs and old breeds are al­lowed to roam across 56km2, a reimag­in­ing of a Pa­le­olithic land­scape. It was Derek’s friend­ship with renowned Pol­ish con­ser­va­tion­ist Marek Borkowski that re­sulted in the ac­qui­si­tion of Suf­folk’s first koniks from his pri­vate herd at the Biebzra Na­tional Park. Their har­di­ness and graz­ing move­ments judged per­fect for the fen restora­tion pro­ject un­der­way at Red­grave & Lopham.

Of course the sav­ing of the fen could not have been achieved with ponies alone. The bore hole that sucked wa­ter and life out of this val­ley had to be moved, the dry, rot­ten peat scraped away by dig­gers, the birch and oaks that had threat­ened to turn rare fen­land to scrubby wood pas­ture felled. But the koniks have played a very real part in the fen’s re­cov­ery. Their graz­ing is more thor­ough, less vi­cious than any ma­chine. It is spe­cialised and more, to use a loaded word, nat­u­ral. Their feed­ing echoes the move­ments of na­tive mega fauna, or at least the live­stock that once would have been turned out here, when the fen and the sedge it grew were once cru­cial to ru­ral liveli­hoods.

‘The koniks re­duce scrub and can cre­ate edge­land by pushing into reeds, stand­ing up to their bel­lies in wa­ter to graze.’

Since the koniks have been in place, con­di­tions for the flora and fauna of the fen have im­proved. But­ter­wort and blad­der­wort have thrived along with marsh har­rier, bearded tit, red­shank, barn owl and bit­tern. The great fen raft spi­der, dis­cov­ered at Red­grave in 1956, is also do­ing well. A vis­i­tor I met ear­lier on one of the re­serve’s trails had seen two of them, along with old skins, shed and hung from sedge like shirts out to dry.

The koniks re­duce scrub and can cre­ate edge­land by pushing into reeds, stand­ing up to their bel­lies in wa­ter to graze. But there is some­thing else too. These lit­tle horses look good here. As Richard says, as we stand watch­ing, “They fit”. Per­haps the match be­tween horse and land­scape is some­thing to do with a shared his­tory. If the past of the fen has been chequered and fraught, so has

that of the pony. The Pol­ish word ‘konik’ sim­ply means lit­tle horse, but it has be­come as­so­ci­ated with a par­tic­u­lar kind of pony, a crea­ture that is sil­very grey and dor­sal striped, car­ry­ing the genes from the ex­tinct for­est tarpan. It was this an­ces­try that made them a tar­get for the Ger­man Lutz Heck who at­tempted to back-breed the species. His re­search saw a min­gling of nat­u­ral sci­ence with the poi­sonous ide­ol­ogy of fas­cism as the Nazis looked to res­ur­rect a crea­ture that looms large in their folk­lore – only for the fruits of their labour to be eaten by the starv­ing pop­u­la­tion of Ber­lin.

The trust were drawn to the koniks for their tarpan fea­tures rather than their blood line. They are ro­bust, happy to wade in wa­ter and wal­low in bog. They overwinter out­doors, the East Anglian win­ters mild in com­par­i­son to the sub-freez­ing con­di­tions to which they with­stood in Poland. Like the tarpan, they mir­ror the sea­sons, their hides turn­ing whiter, more ghost­like, as the tem­per­a­ture falls. The up­stand­ing mane of the tarpan has gone and the ze­bra-striped mark­ing of the legs have faded to be­come more mot­tled. The mix of genes is worn on their sooty sleeves.

Richard’s dog, Hugo, has be­come tired of wait­ing, of look­ing at the koniks. He rolls in the dark peaty soil, wrig­gles on his back. The stal­lion though wants to put on a show. He walks pur­pose­fully to­wards one of the fe­males and at­tempts to mount. She strikes out, kick­ing with both legs and the other fe­males ei­ther side of her round on the male, at­tempt­ing to bite and warn him off, blow­ing through loose lips. Richard won­ders if the ob­ject of the stal­lion’s at­ten­tions is close to be­ing in sea­son and strains to see the pony’s num­ber, freeze-stamped onto her side. These koniks do have names, but they are rarely used. I can un­der­stand why. Managing a site like this there can be no sen­ti­men­tal­ity.

But also the val­ley fens are about wild­ness, about turn­ing back the clock to a time when agri­cul­ture, in­dus­try and de­vel­op­ment was yet to take a toll. To own these horses with names would be to do a dis­ser­vice to a species that is as close to wild as is pos­si­ble.

The stal­lion has given in but doesn’t stray too far. The mare, less ag­gres­sive now, stands some 10ft away look­ing over her shoul­der. The fu­ture of both the fen and these ponies is full of hope.

“The up­stand­ing mane of the tarpan has gone and the ze­bras­triped mark­ings of the legs have faded to be­come more mot­tled”


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