Harnessing Nature's Engineers: Tarpan Horses and Tauros Cattle Help Keep Belarusian Fen Mires Alive

In the pursuit of environmental sustainability, a game-changing nature-based solution has taken root in Belarus, leveraging the inherent capabilities of wild herbivorous animals to maintain the delicate balance of fen mires’ ecosystems.

March 3, 2024
Photo: UNDP in Belarus

Venture deep into the heart of the Republican Biological Reserve "Sporauski" in Bereza district, Brest region of Belarus, and you have a good chance to come across a small herd of tauros, peacefully grazing alongside cute grey horses called tarpans or koniks. The appearance of these animals in the Reserve is a carefully crafted plan to preserve the unique local ecosystem.  

In the latter half of 2023, a group of 19 tauros (Heck cattle) was released into the area. Later, they were joined by 15 tarpan horses. Both species had faced extinction in the past, primarily due to the extensive loss of woodlands and overhunting. The last authentic auroch cow (the ancestor of the today’ tauros cattle) died four centuries ago in Poland, while the wild tarpan horse disappeared from the Europe’s wildlife list in 1879. 

Thanks to genetic reconstitution, today tauros and tarpans are back to Europe’s grasslands. Two herds of these backbred animals were brought to Belarus from the Netherlands and Latvia for a very special mission. 

Their arrival is a deliberate and strategic effort to employ wild large herbivores as nature's engineers in preserving the distinctive ecosystem of one of Belarus's largest fen mires. 

The Sporauskaye fen mire in the Brest region of Belarus - originally a bird reserve - continues to provide refuge for dozens of rare and declining species, including the globally endangered aquatic warbler.  

The Reserve turned into a living laboratory to see if targeted grazing can effectively remove unwanted plants that are a big threat to its unique ecosystems.  

Excessive vegetation disrupts the delicate balance by diminishing the ability of mires to support local species and weakening their overall ecological resilience.  

Flooded Sporauskaye fen mire in winter. Fen mires need groundwater. They accommodate a rich diversity of plants and animals because the water has lots of nutrients. Fen mires play crucial roles in carbon sequestration and water regulation, and their degradation contributes to global environmental challenges such as climate change and water scarcity.

Photo: UNDP in Belarus

The excessive growth of unwanted plants can change the water and nutrient balance in fen mires, putting at risk the special and delicate functions of these wetland ecosystems. 

The practice of grass mowing and bushes emerges as a crucial thread, weaving a delicate balance between preservation and management. 

Starting from 2019, the Reserve teamed up with UNDP and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) to work together in slowing down the growth of reeds, shrubs, and small trees on the total area of 3,259 ha. This was done by using mechanical mowing, ensuring the mire would stay open for birds to thrive. Apart from some obvious advantages of this method, it became clear that mechanical mowing is not without its challenges and may not be sufficient to ensure long-term environmental sustainability.

Mechanical mowing must be executed with careful consideration to avoid unintended consequences, such as soil disturbance or inadvertent damage to flora and fauna.

Photo: UNDP in Belarus

In the pursuit of environmental sustainability, a game-changing nature-based solution has taken root, leveraging the inherent capabilities of wild herbivorous animals to maintain the delicate balance of fen mires’ ecosystems.  

The herbivorous animals, through their natural behaviors, play a crucial role in shaping the landscape. Reintroduced animals resembling their extinct relations that roamed Europe’s landscapes centuries ago: tarpans and tauros arrived in Sporauski Natures Reserve to became focal points in maintaining the natural grazing of Sporauskaye fen mire. 

During the winter, both tauros and tarpans were placed at the heart of the Reserve, distanced from agricultural fields and villages, ensuring the animals' refuge and privacy from human interference.  

The key to this innovative approach, first piloted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2019 together with local conservation authorities, lies in restoring natural food chains that existed in the past. 

The tarpan, an original inhabitant of European grasslands, went extinct in the late 19th century. However, through the marvels of genetic reconstitution, a new breed has been brought back to life.

Photo: UNDP in Belarus

Acting as green engineers, the animals will help curtail the proliferation of excessive vegetation and prevent the overgrowth.  

The scheme is built upon a comprehensive analysis, done by UNDP in partnership with the Belarusian Academy of Sciences, about the biological and environmental roles of large herbivores, drawing from both global knowledge and local research. Additionally, a meticulous assessment of habitat environments has been conducted to ensure the successful integration of the tarpans and tauros into the reserve’s ecosystem.

In 2020, 15 tauros cattle, akin to the fabled ancient aurochs, were relocated by UNDP with the GEF support from the Kemeri National Park in Latvia to the floodplain meadows along the Pripyat River in the Homiel region. In 2023, the animals were transferred to the Sporauski Reserve in the Brest region.

Photo: UNDP in Belarus

It is expected that the targeted grazing will extend beyond mere vegetation control. The deliberate introduction of tauros and tarpans will help protect biodiversity by creating diverse habitats that support a wealth of plant and bird species. Additionally, by doing this cleaning work, the animals dispose of material that may fuel peatland wildfires.  

The tauros cattle from a drone. The usage of drone technology for monitoring wild herbivores is a transformative and efficient method in wildlife conservation and management.

Photo: UNDP in Belarus

In summer 2024 the Reserve’s administration will use drones, equipped with high-resolution sensors to conduct non-invasive surveys of the animals’ movements across the mire and monitor the cleaning progress. The technology provides invaluable data on population size, distribution, and behavior, aiding in the formulation of evidence-based conservation strategies. Drones also play a crucial role in monitoring the health and habitat of wild plant-eating animals, ensuring timely intervention in the face of emerging threats such as poaching or habitat degradation.  

Using herbivorous animals as natural engineers taps into the power of nature, reducing human involvement and leveraging the animals' natural ability to shape landscapes based on ecological needs. 

Photo: UNDP in Belarus

The pilot in the Sporauski Republican Biological Nature Reserve is not just revives the past. It is designed to showcase how nature-based approaches to ecosystem restoration can be successfully integrated into larger conservation strategies, letting nature take its course.