I received this gorgeous picture book in April of last year and have been meaning to post a review of it here in the Journal of Ravenseyrie for quite some time. I felt this book had such potential importance that I didn't want to just tap out a brief synopsis of it. Finally, I came up with the idea that an interview with the author himself would serve to provide additional insight into just how meaningful the Vale de Zebro refuge in Portugal is and how it can be influential on a worldwide basis.
Here then is my interview with Hardy Oelke:
Ravenseyrie: Your devotion to the preservation of the Sorraia horses took an exciting turn when, in 2004, you were able to release back into the wild a group of Sorraias which had been bred in captivity. Part of what you feel is vital for these horses is the capacity to live autonomously in a wilderness setting. Could you explain why you feel this is so important for the Sorraias and what impact it has on preservation efforts?
Oelke: It is important for several reasons: One is Mother Nature's merciless selections, the survival-of-the-fittest situation. In domestic breeds, Man is selecting for traits and abilities he likes, and invariably loses soundness, vitality, sureness of instincts, etc. In the Vale de Zebro Refuge, any animal that can't make it without human help will not survive. So the project serves to restore the original qualities of these horses. Also, within the scope we can offer there, the horses make their mating choices; it's not the breeder who decides which mare is bred by which stallion.
A related aspect is social structure. There are few places left on this earth where horses can still live in families, where mature stallions, mares, foals, immature stallions and immature mares of several generations are allowed to live together, to freely interact and find their own balance and organize their social structure. This is something one cannot observe anymore in free-roaming mustangs, for instance, due to the constant interventions by the BLM, each of them tearing apart what social structures a "herd" may have had.
Yet another reason is wild behavior. In wild, primitive horses, that is a valuable quality. North American mustangs are proof that over centuries of fighting against, and running from, predators and of being hunted by Man, such wild behavior is restored, but in Europe we don't have that kind of situation. Koniks living in a basically wild situation have not redeveloped wild behavior, not even after many generations. When I had my first encounter with Sorraias, most behaved wilder than anything I had experienced before, except wild mustangs, so I regret that this is rapidly disappearing, and hope to restore it in the Refuge's horses. I'm happy to report that, since its beginnings, a definite development into that direction has taken place.
Ravenseyrie: Here in Canada, the feral population of horses on Sable Island has no natural predators and has not been managed in any way by humans for the past 70 years. The Sable Island horses' numbers are controlled by seasonal weather patterns and forage availability. This natural "culling" is so well maintained that a balanced ecosystem has resulted which now depends upon the presence of these horses on the landscape. Do you see the Vale de Zebro establishing a similar contained, self-maintained ecosystem, or do you expect you may have to occasionally remove horses from the preserve?
Oelke: A: The Vale de Zebro Refuge is definitely not large enough for an experiment like that. We are certain that we will have to remove horses from time to time, but the plan is that this is the only interference we allow. Also, the available forage is not for the horses alone, but is diminished to a degree in times of strong vegetation by a herd of cattle. This is also considered of vital importance, as the cattle grazing interrupts the life cycle of horse parasites, so this practise will keep the parasites in check.
Ravenseyrie: Presently, the Sorraias at the Vale de Zebro have split into two bands. How many bands do you feel the five square kilometer environment can support?
Oelke: At its present size, there will only be room for two bands, as far as I can see, with the possibility of an additional small bachelor band. We aim at keeping the total number of horses at around 20. This is not ideal, but it is the best we can do. We want to avoid a situation in which the land cannot sustain the horses all year round, and they would have to be fed at some time during the year. That would be counterproductive in many ways. In my opinion, leaving them to themselves as much as possible has first priority.
Ravenseyrie: I can imagine that the owners of the property are aware of the vital role they are providing in allowing the Sorraias to live a wild existence alongside the cattle which inhabited the area these past five years. What feedback have you received from these generous landowners?
Oelke: The owners are well aware of the importance of the project, and have been very supportive and idealistic. The cattle are not permanently in the Refuge, only at times when the vegetation is very lush, and allows the cattle grazing.
Ravenseyrie: They are to be commended, and I hope other idealistic owners of fallow lands (worldwide) make it possible for more of these types of preservations projects involving wild horses to come into being.
Have there been, or are there plans for the future, to have the Vale de Zebro habitat studied for the effects the Sorraia horses are having on the environment?
Oelke: Yes, definitely. But we are even more looking forward to studies of the horses' behavior, especially social behavior. Already some interesting observations have been made, some of which I mention in the book.
Ravenseyrie: And your book also shows lovely photos of the abundant variety of flora the property contains which studies are now demonstrating to be much healthier for horses than high protein/high sugar grasses and legumes.
Though there are many individuals who are making an effort to breed Sorraias and Sorraia Mustangs in captivity, do you feel that more focus needs to be given to creating more natural habitats that allow for family units to dwell together in a varied environment?
Oelke: Absolutely. While there have been Sorraias and Sorraia Mustangs that made good riding or driving horses, and it is absolutely legitimate to use them like that, this cannot be the answer to the preservation, or even rescue, of the kind. In the long run, the peculiar characteristics and abilities will only be preserved in a natural, wild setting. Whenever horses are bred for whatever Man has use for, there are traits that get lost. Only the survival in the wild ensures the preservation of the animal as a whole, as the marvelous combination of instinct, strength, frugality, fertility, surefootedness, balance, and not the least: beauty.
Ravenseyrie: With the shift in management of the public range lands in the United States favoring the interest of grazing cattle and indigenous wildlife, the mustang horses are being culled to a point of jeopardizing sustainability. While I feel it will be a tremendous loss to the world if free range horses are eventually removed from public lands in the United States altogether, are private preserves similar to the Vale de Zebro a viable option for some of these mustang horses?
Oelke: I certainly hope that wild horses are not going to be removed from public range land, that would be a great loss indeed because of the part they played in America's history. With respect to private preserves, something similar is already happening, has been happening for many years. I'm referring to ranchers who have been taking care of thousands of (formerly) wild horses for the BLM, which had found no adopters due to their physical makeup, or their age. They are using their private land, but they work for the government, of course. Then there are so-called sanctuaries, usually private initiatives, and depending on donations, which take care of a great number of unadoptable horses. They all do so with no regard to the special status some mustangs have -- they take them on as they come, in all colors and sizes and shapes. Regrettably, there isn't a single one devoting its efforts to the preservation of the Sorraia Mustang, in my view the most important and valuable mustang that exists.
Ravenseyrie: While I have a soft spot for all types of horses and feel even the mangiest mustang deserves its freedom, I would certainly feel especially disappointed if those North American mustangs which maintain a high degree of the Sorraia phenotype are lost through the changes in policies presently manifesting themselves in the United States. In what way do you suggest that Sorraia Mustangs (as well as other special strains of mustangs) can be preserved as a continued presence on public land in a way that is sustainable and acceptable to all parties involved?
Oelke: All it would take is the willingness on the part of either the BLM, or whatever other department may have authority over a herd, to manage a herd for Sorraia characteristics. The management of public lands is geared toward sustenance, no matter where. So far, the wild horses were largely viewed by the BLM as a burden and a problem, it would take a public vote of sorts to persuade a BLM office to manage a herd for that type. Not that any existing herd could even be a candidate, and the concept of "planting" a select group of horses in a cleared area is something most BLM officials shy away from, or declare to be not within their legal power, and funding would also be a problem. Also, it would have to be a fenced-in area, because otherwise these Sorraia types might interbreed with non-Sorraia types. Not many Herd Management Areas meet these requirements. However, every one of the many ranches holding unadoptable mustangs for the BLM would. The best chance may be that a large rancher will take a shine to these horses and decide that a band of 15 or 20 head of wild horses wouldn't make much difference on his land...
Ravenseyrie: Other wild horse forms, like the Przewalski horse and the Polish Konik, have received enthusiastic support from preservation groups, and have successfully been reintroduced to native habitats. The Konik horses, especially, have been recognized for the value in maintaining grassland habits which benefits all manner of biodiversity. Your project at the Vale de Zebro is the only one of its kind for Sorraia horses. What can be done to expand the numbers of Sorraia horses and encourage other property owners in Europe and elsewhere to participate in conservation efforts that incorporate Sorraia and Sorraia Mustang horses into similar projects?
Oelke: I wish I knew, and I would start working on it immediately. All I can hope is that the Vale de Zebro will become a role model and that sooner or later there will be another opening for a preserve. I am constantly putting out feelers, but so far, nothing has materialized. I would be more than willing to cooperate with or assist another project.
Ravenseyrie: If more individuals became involved in establishing preserves like the Vale de Zebro, what suggestions do you have for re-homing "surplus" numbers of horses that such projects are likely to generate?
Oelke: I wish we would be having that problem! Obviously, a new preserve could become a home for surplus horses of an already established one. We are approaching that point a Vale de Zebro in the immediate future, save something drastic would happen. As long as no other preserve is available, surplus horses will go to private owners, possibly breeders. Private breeders play their role in preserving the Sorraia horse, but they can't be the sole answer, for the above-mentioned reasons.
Ravenseyrie: Would you ever consider the PZP equine contraceptive as a viable option for maintaining sustainable numbers in preservation projects, as opposed to manipulating numbers through physical culling of "surplus" horses?
Oelke: No, or let's say, I hope to avoid that. The reason is because it interrupts the social structure. I would rather remove an animal or two of a given generation than not have that generation present at all. So far, we don't have that problem, anyway, as Sorraias are hard to come by, and I feel we'll find ready takers whenever we will be in a position to offer surplus horses.
Ravenseyrie: In these modern times, for most cultures and societies, horses are no longer necessary features of daily life and have rather become luxury "items" used for pleasure or equestrian sports. With the current depression in worldwide economies, such a luxury is something many people can no longer afford. When so many humans are struggling just to "get by", why should they care about the precarious existence of a small, primitive type of horse?
Oelke: That's a tough one. There will always be people who look at things only from a profit perspective, and others who are idealists. In our times, the profit hunters seem to rule, but fortunately, there are still people who are not solely driven by the almighty buck, but take interest in, and place value on, other matters. I think it is fair to say that nowadays the awareness regarding genetic diversity, and in the decline in the numbers of species, is higher than in recent decades. As far as the precarious existence of primitive horses is concerned, and why people should care, there is a great fascination that every horse person feels -- and not only horse people -- when observing them. There is also the fact that wild species as well as their primitive descendants possess traits and abilities that get lost in modern breeds. There will be a time when man-made breeds may be in dear need of a hybrid vigor that only the primitive cousins can provide, not only in horse, but in other livestock as well. Finally, they are worth preserving for their own sake, for future generations to enjoy. Man has wiped off this planet an incredible number of species and subspecies already, once they are gone, they are gone for good. What wouldn't I give to lay my eyes on a Tarpan in the steppe of southern Russia! And I know there are many like me...
Ravenseyrie: One last question for you, Hardy. "TAL DER WILDEN PFERDE / Vale de Zebro / The Valley of the Wild Horses" is a limited edition, self-published book, resplendent with hundreds of photos making it an expensive undertaking--what prompted you to create this book, knowing that the return on your financial investment would be barely covering your expenses?
Oelke: The Vale de Zebro refuge is not accessible to the general public, and any considerable number of visitors would defeat its purpose, but I wanted to share the views and atmosphere via the photos and some of the observations with those who cannot experience it first-hand. I hope that it is also serving as a promotional tool to hopefully convince others to engage in a preservation project. My main driving force to produce the book, however, was the desire to put in print the latest information regarding the Sorraia horse as a subspecies, or more correctly, the zebro, in particular the reasons why the zebro cannot have been a hemionus (half ass), like some authors claimed.It was most generous of Hardy Oelke to participate in this interview and I'm so glad that he found the means to present the public with this book on the Sorraia horses and the Vale de Zebro refuge.
The text of this book is written in both English and German, with brief excerpts of d'Andrade's writings in Portuguese and has been kept in small type (almost too small, I find) so as to make room for more of Hardy Oelke's excellent photography. Many photos are documentary in nature, revealing elements of the Sorraia's life in this preserve, others are more ambient with the effect of sweeping one to an otherworldly place, filled with magical light and primeval equines so harmoniously blending into the landscape one wonders if they are real or imagined. Thankfully, they are real and are thriving in the Vale de Zebro!
This full colour 11 x 8 x 1/2" book was published as a very limited edition and is available for purchase for 44,- Euro plus shipping and handling.
To Order please write Hardy Oelke at email@example.com