In the last half century the population of wild horses in Galicia fell by half. There is no official census that collects the exact figure of the collapse, but that is the trend observed by researchers from the reliable estimate of the 70s, provided in a doctoral thesis. Then there were 22,000 head, which has now been reduced to about 10,000. This colony of beasts (Brave horses in Galician) is still the largest in Spain and Europe, although “if it is not remedied urgently to prevent collapse, it will end up disappearing”, warns Jaime Fagúndez, principal investigator of a study on the socioeconomic context and the environmental benefits of wild equines presented this Thursday before the European Commission by scientists from the University of A Coruña. Experts argue that these animals can contribute to solving some of the problems derived from the climatic emergency, the depopulation of rural areas and the biodiversity crisis.
“Although a cause-effect relationship cannot be established because it cannot be demonstrated, it is clear that many mountain lands in Galicia where there were horses and where the natural habitat has been lost have passed to forest use, clearly increasing the risk of fires because there is an accumulation of fuel: wood or lignified plant tissues such as gorse ”, says Fagúndez.
The ecosystem of beasts in Galicia, the study highlights, “it generates benefits and is efficient compared to alternatives such as reforestation, livestock on artificial grasslands or land abandonment”. This work argues that the grazing areas of these wild horses include different types of heather that contribute ecosystem values such as “great biodiversity, high rates of carbon storage and low risk of fire.” And it also offers “positive externalities”, since by consuming shrub species, mainly gorse, “they increase the quality of the pastures and thus reduce the costs of mechanical clearing for fire prevention”. The beasts in the Galician mountains, Fagúndez adds, “they constitute a unique cultural legacy with a great connection to the history of Galicia, its rural landscape and natural values.”
The work of the University of A Coruña points out the causes of the generalized collapse of this population in the mountains of Galicia. “On the one hand, the owners leave the rural environment where only the elderly remain, who cannot take care of this and, on the other hand, there are negative conditions such as the drop in the market price of foal meat and other issues related to the aid of the Common Agricultural Policy ”. The authors of the report claim “criteria for habitat conservation; changes in the calculation of the livestock load when there are wild horses and avoid the transformation of heaths into uses of less ecological and cultural value such as eucalyptus or artificial grasslands ”.
The research has focused on two specific areas: in the Serra da Groba, in the province of Pontevedra, and in the Serra do Xistral, in the north of Lugo, because they represent two different situations for wild horses. La Lugo is an area of the Natura 2000 Network dominated by humid heather and peat bogs where the equines are owned by professional cattle ranchers and there is a wolf presence, while in the Pontevedra area, with a warmer and drier climate, with repopulations forest and frequent fires, the animals are owned by non-professionals and the curros – places where they gather them to cut their manes, mark the young before releasing them again – are great social events.
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The urgent thing is, the study highlights, to reduce bureaucratic burdens for horse owners and that the animals can be in the forest without the need for a microchip, improve traffic signs to warn of their presence, increase payments for damages caused by wolves and limit logging. Along with this, it appeals to the environmental benefits they generate, such as preventing fires.
The researchers call for public administrations to commit to applying policies and regulations “more effectively”. It also appeals to the Galician population and its political leaders, “who have the responsibility of safeguarding this treasure from the beasts for future generations ”. Finally, they urge the European Union and its member states to maintain the appropriate conditions for the maintenance of the increasingly depleted population of wild horses.
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