“We know not what is good”: a discussion on feral horses in Rostov Nature Reserve | №34 Winter 2012 | Steppe Bulletin 
ISSN 1726-2860
(print version ISSN 1684-8438)


№34 winter 2012

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Keystone species

“We know not what is good”: a discussion on feral horses in Rostov Nature Reserve

Natalia N. Spasskaya (Zoological Museum of Moscow State University, Moscow)
Natalia V. Paklina (Institute of Evolution and Ecology, Moscow)

The presence of feral horses as analogues of wild ungulates in protected areas of federal importance is exceptionally rare.Rostovmustangs became a brand, not only for the Rostov Nature Reserve, but also for the whole ofRostovProvince.

As all the behavioral and ecological characteristics of the herd meet the criteria of a natural population, human intervention in horse life should be minimal.

The horse population density on VodnyIslandis comparable to similar figures on feral horses living on islands. The population density at its greatest (419 head) was 22.2 animal per km2. Comparable figures for similar ecological conditions in Canadian and American publications are 27.8 and even 37.8 animals per km2. According to various sources, a permissible population size based on the total plant biomass of pastures lies between 120 and 370 animals. Neither the size of rangeland nor the behaviour of the horses indicates overpopulation on the island. The number of 100 animals suggested by the nature reserve is based on horse breeding experience of 76 years ago and is not sufficient grounds for maintaining the necessary genetic diversity within the herd.

The main cause of the mass die-off of horses in the winter of 2009/2010 is believed to be a shortage of water coupled with a strong and damp wind over a long period of time. This significantly lowered food absorbency. The majority of horse carcasses in the spring of 2010 were found on the shore adjacent to steep slopes where the animals were probably trying to shelter from the strong winds. Horses do not normally go there as there is no food on the coast.

It is suggested that a permanent source of water be provided by restoring the artesian well and increasing the number of watering points.

The strategy for the management of the horse population that was formulated and approved by the nature reserve does not provide for supporting activities and is focused solely on culling.     

As an alternative to the culling method of population control, it is suggested that some horses be relocated to a buffer zone or that chemical contraception be used. Both the economic benefits and risks of different population control methods must be estimated and the technical details for culling must be specified, ie. method of shooting animals, what type of weapon to use, etc.  Culling without taking into account the behaviour, sex and age structure of the population will lead to unpredictable demographic consequences.

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Siberian Environmental Center
Biodiversity Conservation Center
UNDP/GEF Steppe Project in Russia
Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan
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