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