Koniks at Oostvaardersplassen

The Oostvaardersplassen is a unique nature reserve with a variety of habitats which include marshes as well as wet and dry open grasslands that extend over an area of about 5,600 hectares. The reserve is overseen by Staatsbosbeheer which is the Dutch State Forestry Service.

Curiously enough, most of this 56 square kilometer reserve is below sea level with a mean altitude of -4 meters;  the reserve having been set on reclaimed land that was gained back from lake Ijssel in 1968. The land was initially destined for the heavy industries sector, but the area was left untouched for many years, and nature claimed it back. The reserve can basically be devided into a wet and a dry area of 3600 and 2000 hectares respectively.

Before the establishment of the reserve, the dry area was apparently a nursery for willow trees, and it is said that in the first year a vast proportion of willow seedlings could be found per square metre. This led to concern that a dense woodland would develop in the drier area, significantly reducing the value of the habitat for water birds.  Greylag Geese, Anser anser, soon arrived in Oostvaardersplassen soon after the area was drained in the early 1970s.

The arrival of the geese proved valuable at balancing off the years of abandon. Their numbers and foraging habits maintained the openness of the reclaimed land. Without the grazing geese, this fertile area would be overgrown and rapidly growing species such as willows and reeds would prosper, decreasing the biodiversity.

“(…) Non- breeding Greylag Geese from all over Europe chose the site to moult during May and June. During moulting they lose all their primaries simultaneously, which renders them incapable of flying for 4 to 6 weeks. Obviously, they are very vulnerable during this time and they therefore seek out inaccessible areas to retreat to, like the marshy area of the Oostvaardersplassen. Up to 60,000 (non-breeding) Greylag Geese retreat to the marshland to moult (Van Eerden et al., 1997).” (from Frans Vera)

To assist the grazing geese and further maintain the openess of the habitat, Heck cattle, red deer and konik horses,  were released into the area in 1983, 1984 and 1992, respectively ( http://www.staatsbosbeheer.nl), and are allowed to live and behave as their wild ancestors, with no supplemenetal feeding and living out all year round.

geese1

“In 1983, 32 Heck cattle were introduced at the Oostvaardersplassen. In 1985, 20 konik horses followed as did 57 red deer over the course of 1992 and 1993. The animals have since been counted once every three years, among other things, using aerial surveys. The herds have developed naturally and the largest number of animals so far was a total of almost 4,000 animals in 2008.” ( http://www.staatsbosbeheer.nl)

Please respect copyright! ©Victor Ros and Equilibre Gaia 2012
Please respect copyright!
©Victor Ros and Equilibre Gaia 2012

Thanks to Dr. Machteld van Dierendonck, without whom this experience would not have been possible.

We  were a total of 5 (Machteld, Eva, Sef, Thessa and myself) in the counting team, but only four of us attended the counts on any one day. Following the Protocol for counting Koniks 2012 previously prepared by Machteld, we set out for the Oostvaardenplassen to count this primitive looking horse.

Upon our arrival at the Staatsbosbeheer park officeswe were briefed as to the current situation at the park, provided with coffee, a snack lunch, and a 4×4. The park rangers had informed us that the herds have merged to form 1 or 2 massive herds. We were also infomed that Deer and Heck cattle counts had been underway and still in progress. We were in for a long couple of days of endless counting, as we intened to take at least three counts of each group, daily.

We all boarded the 4×4, armed with binoculars, clipboards, mechanical counters, telescopes and all one could possibly need for the job, oh and lots of coffee and tea.

Once inside the OVP, I realised the vastness of the habitat, which reminded me much of the Venezuelan savannah in rainy season. As we drove through the park we spotted a massive group of horses, well massive is not the right word, Humongous would be more apt, as there were well over 400 adults in the group, breathtaking really. Leaving this group behind we ventured to the extremes of the park to attmpt localizing all the different groups before starting the count.

konik on the move

Sef, who was sitting in the back seat on the right side, saw movement in the thickets at about 200 meters and confirmed that it was a large group of horses on the run in the direction we were coming from. Machteld, who was obviously familiar with the terrain proposed that we try and anticipate their direction and wait until they settle down.

The herd finally settled down, and was loafing while drifting directly in the direction of our vehicle. They seemed to pose for our counting, not at all disturbed by our presence or that of the vehicle. This group was counted at point by all four of us at least three times, and our means did not vary more than 1 individual. In the end we counted all groups, well there were only three, which made things easy in that aspect. However there was one large group of about 80 individuals, and two Humongous groups of 400+ adults each. Needless to say that counting the two different groups of 400+ adults was a laborious task. When the group finally settles, individuals lie down, or bands are so cohesed that one individual blends into another. The bigger groups were counted by way of transects and point several times each day, by each observer.

I am not providing the final counts, as these will be provided in due course once the final report has been submitted and data made public. However, I would like to share some images taken during coffee and lunch breaks:

Enjoy the slideshow!

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