CANTERBURY, England (Reuters) - Close to the cathedral city of Canterbury, wild horses linked to sinister Nazi experiments are helping to bring wildlife and rare birds back to once desolate marshlands.
In an intriguing ecological exercise that could revitalize the countryside, naturalistic grazing is the environmental buzzword -- the horses basically munch the marshes back to life.
The hardy Koniks, bred in Poland from the now extinct European Tarpan, are superbly adapted to living on wetlands and revitalize reed beds as they graze.
They were brought to Britain in a project run by the city council in Canterbury and the Wildwood Trust, whose nearby animal discovery park attracts 100,000 visitors a year.
For Peter Smith, the Wildwood Trust’s chief executive, the sturdy and self-reliant Konik is the perfect tool for re-creating a nature reserve on the banks of the River Stour.
Gravel from the 150 acre (60 hectare) area was excavated for building materials up to the 1950s. The land constantly flooded, it was then shored up with chalk but proved uneconomical for agricultural use.
The first 13 horses have already produced four foals, who graze contentedly in the spring sunshine after settling speedily into their new home.
“They are almost like little farmers selecting the plants they want. There is harmony between the plants and the animals who have evolved together over millions of years. Man has taken away this harmony,” Smith said.
“It is wonderful use of our land which could be teeming with wildlife again. We have already seen egrets back nesting on the site,” he told Reuters.
“But the horses certainly have had a very, very harsh history and a very sinister past.”
Tarpans roamed all over Britain until hunted to extinction in Neolithic times. They survived in central Europe until pure breeds finally disappeared at the turn of the 20th century.
Polish scientists, noticing that Tarpan-colored foals were being born to local mares, successfully bred back horses with similar characteristics and called them Koniks -- Polish for pony.
The story of the Tarpan, which featured heavily in the folklore of Teutonic crusader knights in the 13th and 14th centuries, does have a dark side.
After the Nazi invasion of Poland in World War Two, whole herds were stolen and transported back to Germany where geneticists sought to recreate the pure Aryan wild horse.
“The Nazis were trying to emulate what they thought was Germany’s greatest era. Having a Teutonic horse was something to parade at Nazi rallies,” Smith said.
When the Russians invaded Germany in the final days of the war, the horses were eaten by the starving people of Munich and Berlin.
After the war, protected herds repopulated Poland’s national parks. Then, with the fall of the Iron Curtain, conservationists transported the horses to parks across Europe.
So that is how, after a tortuous path through equine history, a herd of Koniks from Holland ended up in this cathedral city bringing nature full circle in the land where they were once hunted to extinction.