Wild horses are being reintroduced in part to help prevent wildfires
MADRID, Spain––Wild horses have been restored, in the names of fire prevention and protecting biodiversity, to three different Spanish conservation areas, scattered across the northwestern Iberian peninsula, and are actively conserved and protected in another, to the extreme south.
The Spanish horse restorations come even as closely related horses of Spanish ancestry are culled in fire-vulnerable Australia and removed from tindery rangelands in 10 western U.S. states as an alleged invasive species.
The Spanish, Australian, and U.S. situations are not entirely comparable. Both Australia and and the western U.S. already have more wild horses than Spanish conservation authorities anticipate ever having, occupying arguably more fragile habitat, shared with more rare and endangered species.
Wild horse overpopulation, a longtime hot-button ecological and political issue in Australia and the U.S., could become an issue in Spain as well, if population management plans fail.
But Spain is acknowledging wild horses as positive contributors to ecological balance, whereas wild horses in Australia and the U.S. are grudgingly conceded squatters’ rights on limited public lands chiefly for “heritage value.”
Brumbies may be shot from the air even where “protected”
In Australia, fifteen times the size of Spain, as many as 400,000 wild horses––called brumbies by the locals––are scattered across the continent.
Most brumbies have no legal protection at all, but the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act of 2021 allows up to 3,000 wild horses to roam over about 900 square miles of the 2,700-square mile Kosciuszko National Park.
An estimated 14,380 wild horses were in Kosciuszko National Park when the Wild Horse Heritage Act passed.
Two years later, in November 2022, the Kosciuszko wild horse population had increased to 18,814 horses, despite culling, and may now be subject to even more aggressive culling, relying on aerial gunnery.
In the U.S., the Wild Free-Ranging Horse & Burro Act of 1971 officially tolerates a wild equine population of about 27,000 on property held by the Bureau of Land Management, a total area approximately 20 times the size of Spain.
However, there are presently an estimated 88,000 wild horses on BLM lands plus other public lands, and almost as many wild horses in holding pens, after having been rounded up and removed from the increasingly drought-stressed range.
To put those figures into perspective, the total Spanish wild horse population may have reached a late 20th century peak of about 20,000, and was believed to have declined to about 11,000 when wild horse reintroduction efforts began in 2012.
Four dozen Retuerta horses
“Four dozen Retuerta horses have been released into the wild in western Spain over the past two years as part of a project by Rewilding Europe, a nonprofit group that seeks to turn the loss of rural farming life into an opportunity to boost biodiversity,” reported Lauren Freyer for National Public Radio on January 9, 2014.
“The endangered Retuerta,” also called the Marismeño horse, “is one of the oldest horse breeds in Europe,” Freyer explained, “and most closely resembles the race of ancient Iberian horses that populated this region before being domesticated.
“Retuertas are nearly extinct,” Freyer continued, “with only about 150 remaining in Doñana National Park in southern Spain,” 250 miles south of Madrid, 50 miles northeast of Gibraltar.
A swampy estuarial region at the mouth of Guadalquivir River, Doñana National Park has been proposed by some archaeologists as the site of the historical Atlantis.
If so, the Retuerta or Mariseño might also be linked to classical Greek mythology
Archaeology involving digging, however, is currently prohibited within Doñana National Park to protect the wildlife habitat, including the horse habitat.
“Living in a single cluster there,” Freyer said, “the entire species could be wiped out by any potential disease or calamity. So two batches of two dozen Retuertas each were brought to the Campanarios de Azaba Biological Reserve, an unfenced area of western Spain,” about 270 miles north of Doñana National Park, 100 miles west of Madrid, 50 miles southwest of Salamanca.
The Campanarios de Azaba Biological Reserve, Freyer reported, is “believed to have once been native territory for the horses.”
Doñana National Park, ironically, is in Andalusia, the southwestern quadrant of the Iberian peninsula, the ancestral home of practically all Arabian horses, domesticated European and American horses, and every wild horse in the Americas, descended from Spanish horses brought in the sixteenth century.
But the Retuertas or Mariseños somehow escaped most of the effects of domestication, despite occasionally mixing with escaped domestic horses.
The Iberian Highlands Rewilding Landscape project, of which the Spanish wild horse reintroductions are a part, is the tenth such ecological experiment undertaken by Rewilding Europe, and the first in Spain, following land acquisitions and species reintroductions in Bulgaria, Croatia, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, and Scotland.
Each project seeks to restore iconic wildlife species known to have been present within recorded history.
Sometimes this means only encouraging species already present in isolated fragments of their former habitat, such as European bison, brown bears, elk, moose, wolves, and wildcats.
In other instances, species are translocated for reintroduction.
Several species have been re-created. Aurochs, for instance, ancestral to modern cattle, were nominally extinct by 1627, but were controversially recovered through back-breeding by Hellabrunn Zoo director Heinz Heck (1894-1982), who married a Jewish woman and was imprisoned at Dachau, and by Heck’s brother Lutz (1892-1983), an enthusiastic Nazi.
Descendants of the Heck aurochs were reintroduced in 1984 at Oostvaardersplassen, the Netherlands, one of the first European rewilding projects, and more recently near Frias de Albarracín, Spain, about halfway between Madrid and Zaragoza, within a 2.1-million-acre area managed by Rewilding Spain.
Two wild horse subspecies
Eleven wild horses were reintroduced in 2022 near Mazarete, 40 miles northwest of Frias de Albarracín.
A second wild horse reintroduction followed a year later at Villanueva de Alcorón, 25 miles south of Mazarete, 45 miles northwest of Frias de Albarracín, but of a different equine subspecies. In all likelihood the herds will eventually meet and mingle gene pools to produce a more authentic replica of prehistoric Iberian horses.
“A herd of 10 Przewalski’s horses, seven females and three males, sourced from the Monts D’Azur Biological Reserve in France, will roam free across 5,700 hectares of public forest near the village of Villanueva de Alcorón,” announced Rewilding Europe spokesperson Emmanuel Rondeau in May 2023.
“An endangered subspecies, Przewalski’s horse is the world’s last truly wild horse,” Rondeau contended. “It is stockier than domesticated horses, with shorter legs. The arrival of the herd in Villanueva de Alcorón represents a milestone for their conservation and rewilding in the local landscape.
“Through their grazing,” Rondeau said, “the horses will clear combustible vegetation, reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire. They will also enhance biodiversity and increase the quality of pasture for other herbivores, such as red, roe and fallow deer. In addition, the presence of these beautiful animals will boost nature-based tourism and help to support environmental education.”
Przewalski’s horse, as of 1945, consisted of only 31 zoo specimens scattered around the world, plus a wild population in Mongolia that reportedly died out by 1969.
Following reintroductions in northwestern China and Mongolia, there are now believed to be about 2,000 Przewalski’s horses, including a small captive population in Spain.
The horse of Altamira
“The Iberian Peninsula was once roamed by wild horses with very similar physical features to Przewalski’s horses, as evidenced by engravings and cave paintings, such as those in Altamira. However, these disappeared around 4,000 years ago,” Rondeau said.
The horses’ new habitat is “a landscape of canyons and valleys, dominated by pine, oak and juniper forests, as well as steppe and agricultural areas,” reported Phoebe Weston of The Guardian in October 2022.
It is also, “as a result of decades of land being abandoned as people moved to the cities, among the least populated areas in Europe,” Weston wrote. “Consequently, species such as deer, ibex and wild boar have already started to come back. Iberian lynx will be released in a year or two, with three or four animals let out initially. Twenty years ago, they were the world’s most endangered cats, with fewer than 100 left, but there are now more than 1,000 of them across Spain and Portugal.
“There are no plans to reintroduce wolves,” Weston added, though some live in the Pyrenees mountains, in the far north of Spain, “because locals fear they will kill livestock.”
“Large, interconnected forest masses”
Víctor Resco de Dios, professor of forestry at the University of Lleida, contradicted Rondeau’s optimism.
Resco de Dios warned that the intensity of wildfires has increased recently due to “large, interconnected forest masses” that have grown up in the absence of farming, arguing that herbivorous species such as horses, deer, and goats do not consume the woody biomass and leaf litter that fuels wildfires.
But horses, deer, and goats do consume the understory that typically ignites first, setting fire to trees and leaf litter.
Resco de Dios also cautioned about the loss of biodiversity that tends to occur when rural areas revert to woodlands, with less edge habitat and more densely shaded forest.
“Traditional management, small-scale farming, and forestry activities produce environments with greater landscape diversity,” Resco de Dios said.
“Shaving the beasts”
Research into the effects of wild horse restoration are underway in two different mountain regions of Galicia, the northwestern quadrant of the Iberian peninsula: Serra da Groba, in the province of Pontevedra, almost on the Atlantic coast, and Serra do Xistral, in northern Lugo province, about 100 miles northeast of Pontevedra, near the Bay of Biscay.
Both locations are part of the traditional Spanish wild horse range.
According to John Hartigan Jr., author of Shaving the Beasts: Wild Horses & Ritual in Spain (2020), wild horses “have inhabited these slopes for millennia and are one of the largest free-ranging populations in the world. Every summer in more than a dozen rural localities, many of these horses are rounded up in a ritual called rapa das bestas, or ‘shaving the beasts,’” a notoriously violent exercise producing frequent injuries to both the horses and the humans who forcibly trim their hair.
“Not considered ‘real’ horses”
“The earliest historical accounts of this ritual date to the 1500s,” Hartigan Jr. wrote, “but archeologists argue that this tradition extends from the Neolithic era, based on petroglyphs featuring horses being driven into small rock enclosures.
“That is the heart of the rapa: wild horses, roaming communal lands in the mountains, are herded together and driven into curros—structures similar to rodeo corrals—where their manes and tails are systematically shaved. Their hair, which in the past had many folk uses, falls worthlessly to the ground.”
These wild horses, added Hartigan Jr., “are intensely disparaged and not considered ‘real’ horses in comparison with the glorified Andalusians and other Spanish breeds.
“Smaller in stature than most of their conspecifics,” Hartigan Jr. said, “this population features a distinctive body type: they have relatively large bellies and short legs, some feature a distinctive gait, and a few sport a thick ‘mustache,’ which is probably an adaptation to the thorny gorse they feed on extensively.
“These are possibly a refugee population who survived” the last Ice Age, Hartigan theorized.
Human-inflicted mayhem is unlikely to drive them to extinction at this point, but treating them with respect and decency would help their recovery.