Monday, 20 June 2016

Where did the wild horse go?

Tarpan. Isn't it an evocative word? It brings to mind images of wild horses, untamed by man, of fierce stallions and galloping herds. When it comes to wild horses in Europe, "Tarpan" is the go to term. Unfortunately, it is also one shrouded in controversy, and for one simple reason: nobody really knows what it means. It seems simple enough - the Tarpan is another word for the European wild horse, right? Well... kinda. Sometimes. It is certainly true that the undomesticated horses which roamed Europe in prehistory are commonly referred to as Tarpans, but the problem is that the designation is not exclusively limited to them - nor necessarily should it be. If Tarpan is a word for the European wild horse, then it should apply to all members of that species, regardless of when they lived. The factor that complicates everything and throws this neat and tidy definition out of the window can be summarized neatly in one word: Interbreeding.

Europe has been home to domestic horses for a long time, and for the entirety of their time coexisting with their wild relatives, interbreeding has most likely occurred. Now, at first this was not an issue, since the populations of (mostly) pure wild horses were so larger that the genes of a few domestics did not have much of an impact. As time went on however, and the wild horse populations plummeted, this genetic balance was lost. Suddenly there were significantly more domestic horses than wild ones, and in times of war or simply due to accidents, domestics were often abandoned and left to their own devices, resulting in them becoming feral. This is where the boundary between wild horses and domestics becomes incredibly blurred, and where the word Tarpan really starts to grow sketchy. Historical observers from centuries passed were rarely detail-orientated enough to take note of the subtle morphological distinctions that separated wild horses and domestics, so whenever a herd of wild-living horses was spotted, these animals were simply referred to as wild, and sometimes, you guessed it, "Tarpans". This makes it very difficult to ascertain whether any given historical account of wild horses living in an area actually refer to true, undomesticated horses, or simply feral descendants of domestics. To make matters even more complicated, as mentioned before, extensive interbreeding took place, and in the latter years of the wild horse's existence, it is plausible if not almost certain that very nearly all populations of so-called Tarpans were either hybrids or pure domestic animals, with very few pure wild types remaining. This is often referred to as the only known picture of a Tarpan, but looking at its morphology, the animal shown is almost certainly either a hybrid or a pure domestic, as it bares very little resemblance to neither the skeletons we have of European wild horses, nor the extant and closely related Przewalski's horses.

To add one final layer of complexity and doubt to the word "Tarpan", today it is often used to refer to certain "primitive" breeds of domestic horses, particularly the Konik Polski. Koniks are one of several breeds often claimed to be either direct descendants of wild horses, or, in the Konik's case, a deliberate back-breeding attempt that incorporated hybrids of wild and domestic animals, thus resulting in a breed almost identical to the original wild horse. While the Konik is undeniably a sturdy and "wild"-looking breed, its morphology, like that of the animal in the picture claimed to be a Tarpan, and all other modern horse breeds, does not match that of the wild horse. Genetic tests have shown that it is no more closely related to wild horses than any other modern breed, and the story of it being a back-breeding attempt has been demonstrated to be a myth. In reality, the Konik is simply a particularly hardy breed originally used as draft animals in their native Poland, where the breed presumably originated, which just so happens to somewhat resemble the original wild horse. And yet, regardless of everything I just told you, the Konik is still often referred to as a Tarpan, including by organizations such as Rewilding Europe.

Pictured: Not Tarpans, but instead a herd of Przewalski's horses, the world's only still extant species of wild horse.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Accepting The Consequences

We - or most of us at least - live in cultivated, domestic landscapes. The places in which we live are molded and shaped by human action, and what wildness does exist persists where we have allowed it - or failed to notice it. It is upon this backdrop of suburbs and cities, of supermarkets and cornfields, that most conservation must take place. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it is an undeniable fact of reality. Even in the most distant corners of most countries, anthropogenic influences are still ever-present, and there are people trying to make a living. There are spots, some larger and some smaller, where people are mostly absent, but rarely wholly. In the Scottish highlands, shepherds make their living, in the north of Scandinavia, Sami herd reindeer, and in the Balkan mountains, hunters and farmers base their livelihoods off the land. Here in Denmark, while we have several areas of relatively wild and connected landscapes - significantly more than most people realize - these are still generally used by at least some people. Most of our forests are logged, either by the state or private landowners, our meadows are grazed by livestock and bordered by intensively managed agriculture, and even our biggest and wildest places, such as the hinterlands of the Jutlandic west coast, are often used by the military as training areas. Sometimes these human activities are mostly unrelated to and unaffected by whatever conservation may be taking place. Sometimes the human activities may be directly dependent on them, but in most cases this does not hold true, and in all cases, the presence of people must be taken into account.

I write about this in part because I have recently been reading and listening to a wide variety of perspectives on conservation and nature, and in part due to the influence that a book by the name of Landmarks, written by Robert Macfarlane, has had on me. The book I will return to later, but for now I will focus on these differing perspectives. It is awfully easy to surround yourself in an echo chamber, an environment in which only agreeing opinions are heard, and in which arrogance and negligence often blossoms. I am, as readers of this blog will probably know, a big advocate of rewilding, and the radical forms of it at that. I follow the movement attentively, and generally have much less interest in traditional conservation, as I see it, to put it bluntly, as a failed attempt, in many cases not worth continuing. This is not of course a commonly held opinion, and even rewilding as a whole is still a relatively niche part of conservation, albeit one which is rapidly expanding. When reading about subjects such as rewilding, about reintroductions and habitat restoration, it is easy only to see the sources you agree with, and become distant to all dissenting voices. It is not that you do not know that they're there, that you don't realize there are people who disagree - of course you do, they're the obstacle that must be overcome for conservation to take place. And that's just it. These dissenting voices, these people who disagree, or at the very least take issue with some parts of conservation and rewilding, they are quickly reduced from real, flesh and blood individuals, with their own motives, worries and passions, to nothing but "obstacles", problems that must be overcome for real, true progress to be achieved. 

A natural area, part of a reserve in fact, nonetheless clearly influenced and surrounded by human activities. Image from