Permission to foal around: New arrival set to help graze one of Europe’s most important wetlands
- 26 March 2023
The first new foal of the year has joined the iconic Konik herd at the Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire, cared for by the National Trust. The new arrival coincides with the oldest member of the herd being due to turn thirty years of age, passing the baton to the next generation of this semi-wild grazing herd to carry on its important legacy of maintaining one of Europe’s most important wetlands.
Comprising one of only four fragments of undrained fen in the UK, Wicken Fen is a key habitat for thousands of species of flowers, insects and birds, and plays and important ecological role by locking up carbon in its wet, peaty soil to reduce emissions and thereby helping combat the climate crisis.
The Konik polski, or Koniks, are a hardy breed of European ponies which graze the historic fenland landscape of Wicken Fen, as featured on last night’s Wetlands episode of BBC One’s Wild Isles, narrated by Sir David Attenborough.
To do more to protect the UK’s spectacular landscapes and their wildlife, including Wicken Fen, the National Trust, together with the RSPB and WWF UK, have issued an urgent call to action to Save Our Wild Isles, encouraging the public to ‘go wild once a week’ and create wilder spaces, make nature part of their everyday lives and speak up on its behalf.
The horses were first introduced to the area by the conservation charity in the early 2000s, together with a herd of Highland cattle, in an effort to make more space for nature on the reserve by clearing persistent shrubbery and move from the previous combination of intensive mowing, cutting and scrub-bashing to more sustainable and climate-friendly conservation grazing.
Carol Laidlaw, the National Trust’s Grazing Ranger who has looked after the herd for over twenty years, explains: “Through their grazing and social behaviour, the Koniks and cattle create a slowly changing, varied landscape. They each graze in different ways – horses snip off selected plants with their incisors, creating a mosaic of cropped lawns, while cattle pull or tear at vegetation, leaving tussocks. This allows different types of vegetation to thrive and increases the diversity and complexity of habitats available to a wide range of species, from tiny dung beetles to mammals and birds like badgers and bitterns.”
The arrival of the first foal of the season is a vital continuation of the hooved fenland custodians' presence at Wicken Fen and kickstarts this year’s foaling season, lasting from late March throughout April and May. As well as the Koniks, the team is also expecting calves to join the grazing herd between early spring and autumn.
Carol continues: “The mares generally conceive about a month after they have foaled and have an 11-month gestation, so we’d expect to see new arrivals around the same time each year. The breeding season for the Koniks runs roughly from late March to October, but the season is starting to expand a little, presumably due to the milder winters we are having.”
The first foal born on the reserve, named ‘Harry’, arrived in 2005, while the first calf ‘Meadow Rue’ followed a year later in 2006.
Through all the years since, Grazing Ranger Carol Laidlaw has been a steady presence for the herd, dedicating her life to ensuring the Konik’s wellbeing on the fen.
She said: “I believe I am known and recognised by the herds – some individuals might actively seek out my company, while others regard me with a wary acceptance.
“The horses form their own social groups, and I interfere with that as little as possible. They tend to move around as one herd, but within it there are little groups. It’s fascinating, watching the different groups, and it is also heart-warming, because we have mares and stallions who show each other a lot of loyalty, and there are groups that have been together for twenty years or more.”
Also this spring, the oldest Konik in the herd – called ‘Tim’, born in 1993 – is set to turn thirty, for which the team are planning a celebration to mark the occasion.
Over the course of Tim’s long life on the nature reserve, Wicken Fen has undergone many changes under the care of the National Trust, most notably having nearly doubled in size to over 800 hectares (1976 acres) thanks to an ambitious 100-year landscape scale Vision project.
The project’s work seeks to increase the area of fenland to the size of a hundred thousand football pitches to restore the once extensive fenland covering 93,000 square kilometres (almost 36,000 square miles) of East Anglia which had been lost due to draining and straightening waterways during the 17th century. The loss has been described as one of Britain’s biggest ecological disasters.
Today, Wicken Fen is once again one of the most biodiverse places in the UK, with over 9,000 different species, including fen ragwort, fen dandelion and fen violet, as well as reed leopard moths and bitterns calling it their home.
With careful and balanced conservation and help from the grazing herd, the conservation charity hopes to protect this precious landscape and help its wildlife to not only survive, but thrive.
To find out more about the Save our Wild Isles campaign, visit saveourwildisles.org.uk.