Thursday, May 23, 2013

A New Phase of Conservation for Ravenseyrie

An image no longer to be seen at Ravenseyrie...Sorraia stallion, Altamiro with his family band

In the late 1920's the Portuguese zoologist, Dr. Ruy d'Andrade chanced upon a very primitive looking group of horses living wild in a remote unpopulated region in Coruche, Portugal.  These horses had the same external characteristics (phenotype) as depicted in particular prehistoric art as well as in historical texts that described regional wild horses.  These characteristics or variations of them (small horses with yellow dun or mouse grey coats, dark muzzles, a dark longitudinal stripe along the middle of the back and dark lateral stripes over the neck, withers and legs, long large heads distinctly convex or sub-convex) were also documented as occurring in wild horses throughout Europe and Russia and were typically referred to as "tarpan" or "tarpani" (or zebro, zevro, encebro, etc. in medieval Iberia).  Even though animal husbandry of the time selected against this phenotype (in an attempt to rid themselves of that which was primitive and wild) the primitive characteristics atavistically persist into modern times among many native domesticated horse populations in Europe and Eurasia.  This same tarpanic phenotype also has been documented among some North American mustangs of Iberian heritage.

The tarpan horses of Europe were hunted to extinction.  Prior to their complete annihilation in Poland (and likely in other countries as well) wild tarpan horses crossbred with native domesticated horses, passing along genes that frequently expressed themselves with the tarpanic phenotype.  Unlike earlier breeders of horses who sought to eradicate the primitive characteristics, Tadeusz Vetulani of Poznań University   selectively bred to consolidate this phenotype resulting in the modern Polish Konik while in Portugal d'Andrade did a very similar act of conservation with the horses we now refer to as Sorraias.  The German hippologist and researcher, Hardy Oelke, took note of those feral horses of North America that share the same Iberian variation of tarpanic characteristics and dubbed them Sorraia Mustangs.  Oelke later participated in a genetic study that found mtDNA patterns present in the Sorraias in Europe were also present among some North American mustang horses, demonstrating their shared external similarities are not through phenotype alone.  An altogether different attempt to reconstruct the primitive characteristics of the tarpan was carried out in Germany resulting in the Heck horse - a man made breed based not on the consolidation of primitive genetics retained in local populations, but a hodge-podge of rather disparate  breeds. 

Ever since humans took an interest in what races of primitive equines influenced our present day domestic breeds there has been lack of consensus among naturalists, archaeologists, historians, hippologists and zoologists regarding the tarpanic horses:  are they true wild horses or feral descendants of early domestics or a hybrid of both?  The trend these days is to turn to genetic research to illuminate the ongoing debates.  Unfortunately the only osteological remains of the tarpan scientists have for research are one complete skeleton and one skull (sans mandible) making it doubtful that genetic research can provide any definite proof one way or the other that the Sorraia and Sorraia Mustangs are regional variants of the extinct tarpan. 

What is obvious is that the Sorraia and Sorraia Mustang have retained a tarpanic phenotype that breeds true, is exceptionally suited to survival in the wilderness, and have maintained behavioural characteristics that are virtually identical to what is known of the behaviour and habits of true wild horses.  Whatever adulteration of ancestral "true wild horse" genetics has occurred through historically unavoidable crossings with domesticated horses seems to have marginal impact upon their outward appearance or physical and behavioural fitness for living in the wild.  Indeed, the Sorraias that were released to live a completely wild existence in the Vale de Zebro near Coruche had no trouble adapting to the sometimes harsh conditions of their approximate five square kilometre habitat, unlike the first reintroductions into the wild for zoo raised Przewalski's horses who had to be gradually adapted to living on their own in the wilderness.

For those of us who feel a throbbing deep thrill in our core beings to see wild horses roaming free, it is to be noted that with the exception of the feral horses living on Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia all other free ranging horses have political or environmental restrictions that necessitate to one degree or another human manipulation of their lives.  Where equine breeding groups exist time to time populations numbers in limited habitats must be kept in check, whether these be Sorraias living wild in the Vale de Zebro in Portugal, Exmoor ponies living semi-wild in the moorlands of the British Isles or Przewalski's horses living a natural existence Hungary's Hortobágy National Park.  In the case of Sorraias living in the Vale de Zebro and the free ranging moorland ponies of Great Britain, periodic removals of select individuals keep population levels in balance, while those managing the Przewalski's horses in Hungary are now incorporating equine contraceptive with PZP to assure excessive numbers do not pose a threat to the natural habitat.  The mustangs of North America - who rebounded throughout its vast landscapes when it was an unfenced wilderness and are now subjected to limitations of imposed ranges and grazing rights of ranchers - continue to be unjustly maligned and persecuted only because of socio-political pressures...Their history of being being roughly removed from public now includes more concerted efforts of contraception with PZP as the voices opposed to unfriendly governmental policy surrounding the horses manage to remind the world that wild horses have a right to the landscape perhaps more than anyone else.

My husband, Kevin, and I have been privileged to be able to have living here on our own landscape on Manitoulin Island a family band of tarpanic horses.  I, personally, took great pride in providing as much autonomy as possible for our Sorraia stallion, Altamiro, his harem of Sorraia Mustang mares and their many offspring that have been born here (19 foals over a six year period!).  Indeed, I believed that allowing a stallion to live with his mares and assorted offspring, left free to manage their affairs by the dictates of their instincts and hormones in relation to Nature's rhythms was the optimum way of assuring the continued preservation of the "wild" genetics these horses have retained from their ancestors.   Alas, the old adage continues to ring true..."pride goeth before a fall"... I feel I have been tumbled down off my highest ideal.  Though I still believe a wilderness habitat free from human manipulation is the optimum environment for the continued survival of these horses, I am no longer so naive to imagine that such a life for the equines can be sustained here at Ravenseyrie with the limitations of a 360 acre landscape.  As such, we have, over the past two years, found ourselves making decisions we thought unthinkable at the start of our involvement with these horses...

In an attempt to keep the family band intact and continue also to provide a free range environment here at Ravenseyrie for those offspring that we have not sold to others who are also devoted to saving the Sorraias we made a difficult choice in late 2011 to have Interessado and Silvestre castrated and in 2012 put all breeding age females on fertility control via remote dart with the PZP immunocontraceptive. 

Darting Zorita with PZP in spring of 2012

Here are some video clips showing the delivery of PZP via remote dart on the Ravenseyrie mares during the spring of 2012:

While these efforts have already assisted slowing the births here, it has not provided a relief from the behavioural pressures associated with the dynamics of males and females mingling on a limited landscape.  To our surprise, daughters that Altamiro had formerly expelled from the family band in prior years are now once again enfolded within the natal unit and being bred and treated by Altamiro as if they were non-relations.  (Pinoteia was "stolen" from the alternate group and forced to rejoin the family band and a month or so later, Fada returned to the family band by her own choice after having been living in the alternate group since 2009.)  As the spring of 2013 oh-so-slowly found its way to Manitoulin Island, Kevin and I ordered enough of the PZP to boost the mares that were put in the fertility control program last year as well as ordering extra to dose the two year old fillies, Esperanda and Altavida with the contraceptive as well.  When the PZP and adjuvant arrived and we discussed mixing them, filling the darts and then aiming the pistol at seven mares, we were overwhelmed with a sense of displeasure at the tasks.  Meanwhile, the two year old colts, Legado and Destemido remained separated in the holding pasture awaiting the weather to settle so we could transport them to Twinravens (the property of Mark Seabrook and Michelle Hrynyk) as part of our secondary preservation effort.  Five other stud colts were slated for relocation to Twinravens (an hour's drive away from Ravenseyrie) later this year.  This would surely alleviate the stresses of too many stallions.  But, as we contemplated using the PZP on mares and fillies that are part of a preservation effort to protect their genetics, we realized that we run the risk (if used for 5 consecutive years) of sterilizing them - which runs counter to the conservation of the Sorraia, especially when so many of the purebred Sorraia females in Europe are plagued with fertility issues.  It did not take much more thought to recognize that though it meant breaking up the family band, the best option to us at this point in our conservation of the horses is sending the females to go live at Twinravens and keep all the stallions here as a bachelor group.
So yes...something I never wanted to do, I have agreed to do...and the feeling of relief was instant...and the process has been incredibly smooth with Altamiro, the mares and their 2012 colts we had to wean all seeming to work with the decision and quickly adapting to the changes in their lives.

The day the mares and foals were brought in off the range
Altamiro observes his family band from the outside of the holding pasture

All the females, except Fada and Belina are now at Twinravens, as it is taking Fada and Belina extra time to feel comfortable with the idea of being together on the trailer.  They are living presently in the holding pasture and making progress loading and unloading themselves for meals on the trailer.  We look forward to bringing them to Mark and Michelle's place where they can rejoin their "girlfriends'.

What this means for the Journal of Ravenseyrie is that I will now have observations and stories to share of what the mares lives are like at Twinravens and of course continue to document the affairs of the stallions here at Ravenseyrie.  While it is the end of a beautiful way of life, it also is the beginning of a different, equally lovely way of continuing to conserve the tarpanic Sorraia and Sorraia Mustangs.  I am looking forward to this new phase of the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve, even as I shed a tear or two for the way things used to be.

Some recent photos:

Mares and foals in holding pasture with trailer
Mares teaching themselves how to load and unload from the trailer
Early days at Twinravens
Michelle Hrynyk (and her husband Mark Seabrook) join us in conservation efforts by hosting an "all girl" group (Bella's colt Ousado excepted!)

Fair skies over Twinraves and the Ravenseyrie mares!

Mark and Michelle's young dog, Akina, has rather adopted the Ravenseyrie mares, and they are surprisingly tolerant of her.  What pleasure Akina takes in mingling with and showing off "her horses"!

Akina and "her" horses

The young ones take a nap after playtime

Akina and the Sorraia colt, Ousada

Altavida and Esperanda enjoy mutually grooming at Twinravens

Two year old filly, Altavida begins to show how lovely a mare she is becoming!