Friday, 5 February 2010

Wild Horses to help White Cliffs Wildlife Thrive

PHOTO: Terry Whittaker

A new herd of wild horses will help save threatened butterflies and birds as they are released to one of Kent’s most stunning Nature Reserves on the White Cliffs of Kent.

In an innovative, new partnership between Wildwood Trust, The White Cliffs Countryside Project and St Margaret’s Parish Council; a herd of wild horses are being set free to help breath life back into one off Kent's most important nature reserves.

The horses are the last descendants of the true wild horse of Britain and Europe. The horses have survived centuries of persecution and even squads of Nazis sent to kidnap them for genetic experiments.


The release is planned to be at the South Foreland Valley Nature Reserve, St Margaret’s bay at 2.00pm on Tuesday 09th February 2010.

Two wild horses from the Wildwood woodland Discovery Park will be joining a young female horse, called Pippin, from the High Meadow Nature Reserve in Dover to form the new herd.

Joining the wild horses will be Wildlife Experts Peter Smith, of Wildwood Trust and Josie Newman of the White Cliffs Countryside Project. They will be helping Volunteers from St Margaret’s Parish Council who will be getting a crash course in to how to look after the wild horses.

The wild horses will be let out to roam free on South Foreland Valley which is one of Kent’s Most important nature reserves, and is protected under British and European law.

The proximity of South Foreland to the sand bars, known as the Goodwin Sands, has meant the site has been important for shipping over the centuries. Beacons on the cliff tops were used to warn the ships at first but the Romans replaced these with lighthouses. The current South Foreland Lighthouse was built in 1843.

Thanks to the horses, the sites internationally important biodiversity will be enhanced and protected. The site is home to a wide range of wildlife whose presence was threatened if the habitat is not periodically grazed by large animals like the wild horses. Over 29 species of butterfly have been recorded such as the chalkhill blue and the silver-spotted skipper.

The wild horses that arrived from Holland 4 years ago and are the closest living relatives of the extinct Tarpan, the wild forest horse that roamed Britain in prehistoric times.

Wildwood Trust & Kent Wildlife Trust have pioneered the re-introduction of these amazing animals to the UK in 2002. The two Kent based nature conservation charities brought the first ever of their breed to arrive in southern England and these horses and their offspring have been helping to restore some of the most precious national nature reserves in the UK.

Wildwood Trust's vision is to bring back our true 'wildwood', a unique new way of restoring Britain's land to its natural state. This involves releasing large wild herbivores and developing conservation grazing systems to restore natural ecological processes to help Britain team with wildlife again.

Wild Horses are just one of the huge range of British animals that can be seen at the Wildwood Discovery Park near Canterbury. For more information visit our website at or telephone 0871 7820081.

Media Contacts:

Peter Smith, Chief Executive of Wildwood Trust 07986 828229

Martyn Nicholls, Wildwood Press Officer 07812 635279

Josie Newman, White Cliffs Countryside Project 01304 241806

Kirk Alexander, White Cliffs Countryside Project 07885 599182


Herds of Konik horses are used all over Europe for conservation grazing projects today.

The 'Konik pony' as they are sometimes known originated in Poland and Konik is actually the Polish word for small horse.

They are a highly unusual breed in that they directly descended from the wild European forest horse or 'Tarpan' which was hunted to extinction in Britain in Neolithic times. Tarpan survived in central Europe until the late 1800s when the last of their race were captured in the primeval forest of Bialoweiza, Poland, and transported to zoos. When the last of these died in 1910 the pure race disappeared forever.

In the early years of the 20th century Polish Scientists noticed that Tarpan coloured foals - mouse grey overall with zebra stripes on their legs and dark manes and tails - were still being born to domestic mares in herds where Tarpan had formerly ranged. They selected these and back-bred them successfully over generations to recreate the extinct forest horse.

This story does however have a dark side. Some of the wild horses' ancestors where stolen by crazed Nazi genetic experimenters under the patronage of Reichmarshal Herman Goering. The Nazis where bent on recreating a genetically pure 'Arian' wild horse.

During the inter-war years German zoo directors were supported by senior Nazi party officials such as Herman Goering with their attempts to recreate these primeval horses. The Tarpan featured heavily in Teutonic folklore and their recreation through racially selective back breeding supported the Nazis eugenic race theories.

After the Nazi invasion of Poland whole herds where stolen and transported back to Germany. There they become a part of genetic experiments trying to 'back breed' a Teutonic Tarpan. These efforts where all destroyed as they where eaten by the starving population of Berlin and Munich when the Russians invaded in the final days of the war.

Thankfully the polish scientists who where looking after the Wild horse herds where able to protect some of them. After the War the protected herds were allowed to repopulate the national parks of Poland under the soviet occupation. Once soviet occupation was ended, with the fall of the Iron Curtain, conservationists where able to transport the wild horses to national parks across Europe.

Since this time conservation grazing projects throughout Europe have used the Konik horses for wetland grazing projects. The former habitat of Tarpan was marshy woodland where their grazing activities help create ideal living conditions for a host of associated wildlife such as rare geese, spoonbills, bitterns and corncrakes.

The recorded history of the European wild horse, known as the tarpan, is an exciting story. The tarpan aroused scientific interest when it was already on the verge of extinction during the start of the last century.

A few were kept on reserves or in captivity, but the remaining forest tarpans in Poland were allowed to be absorbed by the domestic ponies of the peasants in the various regions where they survived. The domestic ponies of these remote regions were probably already carrying a certain proportion of tarpan genes through generations of interbreeding. Eventually it was noticed that certain Konik ponies had characteristics known to be those of the pure tarpan. Apart from the mouse-grey colouring, dorsal stripe, shape etc., there was also a tendency to turn partly white in winter.

Before the Second World War, two people in particular took a special interest in the tarpan-like characteristics of the domestic ponies used by remote polish peasants known as the Bilgoraj Konik. The peasants where too poor to feed the horses through winter so would let them roam wild and recapture them for agricultural work the next spring.

Two men now tried to 're-breed' the Bilgoraj Konik, One was Polish and one was German. The Pole was Tadeusz Vetulani of Poznan University, who began selecting Koniks for a tarpan re-breeding project in the Bialowieza Forest.

Two of his Koniks, a male and a female, had the tendency to turn whitish in winter, always retaining the dark points. The project was successful and another herd was established in the Popielno Forest. Attempts were made to regenerate the European bison, also, at this time.

The other person interested in re-breeding the tarpan was Lutz Heck, the director of Berlin Zoo and ardent Nazi. He and his brother Heinz, a director of Munich Zoo, both started tarpan re-breeding projects using a variety of horses. The brothers, both interested in German forest and hunting culture, established independent breeding groups. Both claimed success in re-breeding tarpans.

Heck was to rise high in the ranks of the Nazis and held an important position in the ministry responsible for nature and forests. When Germany overran Poland during World war II, the scene of many Nazi crimes, the polish Konik ponies where to join the raft of genetic experiments aimed at justifying the twisted Nazi philosophy.

Lutz Heck personally commanded and supervised a Nazi team that stole a number of herds of the small primitive horses from the Bialowieza National Park for their genetic experiments.

Lutz Heck developed his re-breeding experiments with the enthusiastic support of senior Nazis, chief amongst whom was the Reichmarshal, Herman Goering.

Peter Smith
Chief Executive
Wildwood Trust

Tel: 01227 712111or 07986 828229
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Wildwood Trust is Kent's unique 'Woodland Discovery Park', a visitor attraction with a difference.

Wildwood is not only the best place to bring the family for a day out, but it is also a bold and innovative new charity, backed by the UK's leading wildlife conservationists. As a new charity Wildwood needs everyone's support in its mission to save our native and once native wildlife from extinction.

Wildwood Trust's vision is to bring back our true 'wildwood', a unique new way of restoring Britain's land to its natural state. This involves releasing large wild herbivores and developing conservation grazing systems to restore natural ecological processes to help Britain team with wildlife again.

The Wildwood 'Woodland Discovery Park' is an ideal day out for all the family where you can come 'nose to nose' with British Wildlife. Wildwood offers its members and visitors a truly inspirational way to learn about the natural history of Britain by actually seeing the wildlife that once lived here.

Set in a sublime 38 acres of Ancient Woodland, Wildwood offers visitors a truly unique experience. Come Nose to Nose with our secretive badgers, experience what it is like to be hunted by a real live pack of wolves, watch a charging wild boar or track down a beaver in his lodge.

Wildwood Trust runs a highly successful programme of Conservation Projects - we are the UK's leading experts in rescuing and re-establishing colonies of Britain's most threatened mammal, the water vole. Wildwood Trust has pioneered the use of ancient wild horses to restore nature reserve. Wildwood Trust has been at the forefront of efforts to re-establish the European Beaver back in Britain where they belong. European Beaver have been proven to help manage water ways to bring back a huge range of plants, insects and animals.

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