‘God’s Horses’                                               

Wild about the Latvian coast

(This appeared in BALTIC OUTLOOK, in-flight magazine of AirBaltic, 2006)

Each summer, a small group of young Latvians go back in time. These folklore and history enthusiasts go out to an uninhabited part of the Latvian countryside and try to recreate what life was like for Latvian tribes in the 9th century. Using replicas of ancient tools, young men and women build primitive log structures and strive to dress, eat, think and survive like their distant ancestors did generations ago. After a month of intense ’living in the past’, these missionaries of ancient tradition return to their day jobs in Riga and share what they learned.

The 35 stocky cloud-gray horses that graze in the wilderness meadowlands of the Lake Pape region in the Southwestern corner of Latvia have no idea that they are on a similar mission.  But unlike their young human counterparts at the summer history campsites,  these horses have no other day jobs. This is it. Eighteen specially bred Konik horses were brought to Latvia from the Netherlands in 1999 and put on a 250-hectare piece of private land as part of the , World Wildlife Fund’s ‘Large Herbivore Initiative’  and they have been living off the land – without human help – ever since.

The Konik is believed to be the closest living relative of the prehistoric Tarpan, a sturdy, short-legged breed of horse that once roamed freely in the tens of thousands across the vast Eurasian continent. Although the last known Tarpan died in a Moscow zoo in 1887, Polish scientists tried to preserve the Tarpan genotype through a carefully selective breeding program with free range Polish farm horses that had routinely, through the centuries, cross-bred with the wild Tarpans.

The result was the Konik. It’s actually a new breed, but close enough to the extinct Tarpan to give scientists and wildlife observers a rare glimpse into the world’s zoological past. The once ubiquitous Tarpan had been forced out of the wilderness and into extinction by centuries of European cultivation and urbanization. Wild horses that once lived entirely off the land no longer had any land in Europe to live on. In fact, over the last millenium almost all of Europe’s original free roaming herbivores  – wild bison, cattle, sheep – have been forced out of their natural habitats by land-consuming humans.

The WWF is trying to reintroduce a number of wild species back to selected areas in Europe, in hopes that they will not only survive and thrive, but also restore and preserve some of Europe’s last remaining wilderness regions.

The first successful self-sustaining wild Konik herd was established by the WWF in the Netherlands. In looking for additional ‘ancient’ homes for the Konik, the Lake Pape region on Latvia’s southern Baltic Sea coast seemed like a perfect candidate.  When it comes to unspoiled coastal grasslands you won’t find anything more authentic anywhere in Europe.

Until recently, the marshes and woodlands around Lake Pape were largely known for their quaint fishing villages and excellent water reeds (a traditional rural Latvian roofing material that has recently come into fashion among ‘back to the roots’ Latvian  architects and home owners.)  A 60 kilometer square territory around Lake Pape has been designated as a protected nature area, and less than 200 people live within its shifting dunes, coastal wetlands and musky peat bogs.  This number continues to decline because the region is one of the rare places in Europe where endless urban creep and sprawl seems to have successfully reversed itself.  Two wars and an occupation took its toll on the already sparse population, and the few surviving farms and homesteads are being turned into museum exhibits, or gradually abandoned.

But where man has left, nature has rushed in with a flourish. Thanks to human disinterest, the Lake Pape region has become one of Northern Europe’s last natural havens for wolf, lynx, otter, beaver, moose, red deer, roe deer and wild boar. And birds are just crazy about it. Hundreds of thousands of them pass through here each year as they migrate up and down the East African-European-Arctic Flyway. In effect, Lake Pape has become a major rest stop for birds along this high-traffic migratory superhighway.

Judging from the way the Koniks are thriving in Lake Pape, they seem to feel right at home.  Some think that they, in fact, are. Latvian folklore and folk songs are filled with references to ‘god’s horses’ (wild horses without human owners who roamed the Latvian forests and meadows), strongly suggesting that the ancestors of the Koniks were well known neighbors of early forest and coast-dwelling Latvian tribes.

The stolid, seemingly implacable Koniks appear to be a perfect genetic fit for this sometimes harsh, windswept, sea coast wilderness area. They have a capacity to digest and live on almost any type of wild grass, and annually acquire a special layer of fat that helps them survive the harshest Baltic Sea winters. They huddle in groups for warmth and protection, and move only when they have to, expending little wasted energy. While in English the designation ‘wild horses’ is technically accurate, their Latvian designation as ‘savvallas zirgi’ (‘self-sustaining horses’ ) is a more apt description of their quietly determined disposition.

Since arriving in Lake Pape, the number of Koniks has nearly doubled, providing WWF observers (and tourists) with a rare opportunity to observe their unique social structure.  Koniks instinctively divide themselves into family groups, or ‘harems’, where several mares follow a dominant leader stallion. Young colts are eventually pushed out of their mother’s families and forced to compete for the right to create their own ‘harems’. The mothers, however, are also responsible for upgrading the instinctive memory bank and genetic stock of the entire herd. Thus, they eventually move to other harems, passing on genes and experience from generation to generation. Experts believe that the Konik breed will get stronger with each generation, as it revives and restores its ancient genetic memory.

In the last year the steadily growing herd of Lake Pape Koniks have already split into three thriving harems and is showing all signs of adapting enthusiastically to its unfettered home in the meadows, forests and wilderness along the Baltic Sea coast.

The Koniks live on a 250-hectar parcel of wilderness land that has been leased by the WWF from several local owners. They are watched over by Velta Kupele, an energetic Latvian woman and avid horse lover, who was hired by the WWF to serve as the Koniks’ den mother, guardian, groundskeeper and tourist guide.

If you call ahead (for details contact the WWF Latvija office at +371 7505640 in Riga), Velta will greet you at the gate of the fence that surrounds the Koniks’ preserve and  personally walk you through the woods and meadows so that you can get a close up glimpse at these beautiful specimens. With no natural predators, (wolves have left them alone for the time being) the horses are remarkably docile and will let visitors come within several meters of them as they huddle together in their cozy harems. Velta claims they love the attention they get from humans, but reminds wide-eyed visitors that touching and feeding is totally forbidden.

Left to their own devices, the Koniks of Lake Pape seem set for a long and prosperous stay. But WWF Latvija is still seeking additional funds to make the area more secure for the horses, as well as more easily accessible to tourists. A bird observation tower has already been completed, and there are plans to build a special hiking trail and nature information center. There is also talk of introducing some other endangered species to the area, in hopes that they can follow the Koniks’ example.

The Lake Pape Koniks also seem to be a fitting symbol for a country like Latvia that soon hopes to join the European Union. After all, their ancestors were true Europeans, who once grazed freely across a continent that had no national borders. The have found this little corner of Latvia to their liking because it is one of the few places left in Europe where Europe still looks, feels and  smells the way it used to several millennia ago.

Spend some time with the Koniks of Lake Pape and you may feel yourself transported back in time as well. But be sure to shut off your mobile phone.