Lutra 57(2)_Van Vuure_2014

On the origin of the Polish konik and its relation to Dutch nature management

After the end of the last ice age, relatively small numbers of the wild horse managed to survive throughout much of the Holocene in the heavily forested parts of Western and Central Europe. Hunting and being driven from its feeding grounds by man diminished the numbers of these animals. Probably, the last population of these horses survived in the wild in the borderland of East Prussia, Poland and Lithuania, until the 16th Century. The last specimens were housed by Jan Zamoyski in his zoo at Zwierzyniec (SE Poland). There, this (sub)species came to an end, at the end of the 18th Century. On the basis of a report by Julius Brincken in 1826, which stated that the last wild horses would have been crossed with farm horses about 1806, the Pole Tadeusz Vetulani started a breedingback experiment in the Forest of Białowieża in 1936. It was his intention to get back the wild ancestor by selecting and crossing farm horses from the vicinity of Biłgoraj. After Vetulani’s death in 1952, this experiment was taken over by the Polish state, and was moved to Popielno (NE Poland). After the cessation of the breeding-back experiment, around 1970, the konik is still bred there, but these days only as a ‘primitive horse breed’. There are several pieces of evidence that show that the Brincken’s report on the wild horse was misleading and inaccurate. In addition, Vetulani conducted his experiment in a careless way and, as such, his breeding-back experiment should be considered to have been unsuccessful. In the 1980s, koniks were put out in the Netherlands – first on the Ennemaborgh Estate in 1981 and later in 1984 in the Oostvaardersplassen Nature Reserve - as part of a cheaper and more ‘natural’ nature management in the Netherlands. There was (and still is) a perception that the konik is ‘the most recent descendant’ of the European wild horse. Through using specific phrases (such as ‘letting nature have its way’, ‘primeval landscape’ and ‘Serengeti’) managers of the Oostvaardersplassen and some media frame the Oostvaardersplassen area as an untouched and natural ecosystem, which is far from the case.