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Reviving Europe’s biodiversity with exotic animals

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A third project near Berlin that uses large herbivores for conservation is set in another truly anthropogenic landscape — a former sewage treatment farm. In the 1980s, the sewage farm was shut down and discussions ensued about what to do with the property. Since 2011, the result is a project that aims to create one of the largest sylvan pasture areas in Europe.

“On more than 800 hectares [2,000 acres], we are now trying to create this new landscape type that is ideal for rare and endangered species — an open forest,” says Andreas Schulze, project manager for Nature in the Barnim Region, a public/private partnership of local authorities, environmental organizations, organic farms, and private citizens.

Schulze uses yet another mix of herbivores for the grazing: Koniks — ponies supposedly derived from the ancient European wild horse — as well as British cattle varieties like the White Park and the Scottish Highland, which are more robust and thus cope better with rugged and wet terrain than ordinary German cows. In Holland’s Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve, a similar mix of koniks and other herbivores is used to keep biodiversity levels high.

“Grazing with koniks and other large herbivores is the best approach for conservation in Germany,” says Josef Reichholf, a prominent zoologist and evolutionary biologist from Munich’s Technical University, who has long advocated the reintroduction of large herbivores to enhance biodiversity in Germany’s human-dominated landscape. Reichholf points out that the German landscape is exposed to a constant downpour of fertilizer from the sky, as car and factory exhausts add nitrous oxides to the atmosphere. This airborne fertilizer helps nonspecialized plants grow, which reduces and finally excludes rare plant species adapted to nutrient-poor habitats. Dense vegetation also creates a damp, cool surface microclimate, which is detrimental to many species of insects and birds of the open landscape. Large herbivores crop this excessive plant growth, allowing rarer native species to flourish.

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