Feral Horses Gallop to the Rescue of Butterflies in Distress
By Nanticha Ocharoenchai
In the Czech Republic, horses have become the knights in shining armor. A study published in the Journal for Nature Conservation suggests that returning feral horses to grasslands in Podyjí National Park could help boost the numbers of several threatened butterfly species.
In 2017, wildlife organizations laid out their plan to introduce Exmoor ponies (Equus ferus caballus) to the dry, temperate grasslands of Podyjí along the Czech border with Austria. They aimed to "rewild" the region and restore natural ecosystems by allowing the land and its native species to develop free from human influence.
At the same time, a team of researchers led by Martin Konvička, a researcher at the University of South Bohemia in the Czech Republic, began monitoring butterfly species in the reintroduction sites to predict how they would respond to this "refaunation," as scientists call the reintroduction of animals. Their results showed that the horses' grazing would likely improve conditions for many of the butterfly species that live in the area.
It turns out that horses encourage habitats that many butterflies flock to. By trampling and feeding on tall shrubs, young twigs and fruits, horses keep the grasslands short, which some butterfly species prefer. They also don't disturb the land as much as mowing or more intensive livestock grazing would.
Konvička and his team studied the population size, movements and larvae of five species of checkerspot butterflies, including four that are listed as endangered or critically endangered nationally. For more than two months, the researchers scoured the park's fields to find as many butterflies as possible. They marked them with unique codes using felt-tip pens and took note of their species, sex and wing wear on a scale of "fresh" to "heavily worn." Then they released them, only to repeat the procedure the next day.
To study checkerspots, Konvička said, "you need a group of dedicated people at the spot, ready to work every day with no days off for most of the summer, when most humans prefer to be at a beach."
The researchers' analysis allowed them to predict how the butterflies might respond to the reintroduction. The results showed that each species tends to specialize in different habitats. Some prefer short grass and woodland edges, and others like exposed rocks and ditches.
"The ongoing insect/pollinator crisis is at least partly due to homogenization of land use in agriculture, forestry, et cetera," Konvička said in an email. In other words, these human impacts are making landscapes more uniform with less variety, reducing the chances that they'll provide the right habitat for multiple species of butterflies.
That means "everything which brings back a semblance to pre-industrial/prehistoric conditions will help," Konvička added.
One of the organizations involved in this project, the nature conservation NGO European Wildlife, decided to replicate their refaunation efforts after the success of reintroducing Exmoor ponies to a former military base in Milovice, also in the Czech Republic. That project demonstrated how butterflies benefited from the presence of Exmoor ponies, a breed native to the British Isles. They're also one of the oldest and most primitive horse breeds in Europe and handle cold weather well.
Dalibor Dostal, director of European Wildlife, said part of the challenge was "to give people confidence in natural processes."
Four of the studied butterfly species prefer habitats that horses help create and maintain. But the study also shows that the rarest of the five species, the Assmann's fritillary (Melitaea britomartis), will likely be threatened by the reintroduction due to the decrease of tall vegetation that it prefers.
The study site, which is also a former military base, was once home to other species like the hermit butterfly (Chazara briseis). The concrete military structures and ecological changes left behind from World War II drove out some species, but they created ideal living conditions for the Assmann's fritillary. The reintroduction of the horses will likely transform the landscape again.
Konvička said that studies like this one could help predict those impacts before they occur.
"Detailed knowledge of [the ecology] of focal insects may point to rewilding-associated risks," he said.
He recommended the regulation of horse population sizes, as well as incrementally enlarging the project sites to avoid the risk of overgrazing, which could clip down the vegetation to a uniform length that's not ideal for many butterflies.
"I think the introduction of feral horses in such dry grasslands is an excellent idea," said Roel van Klink, a researcher at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research at the University of Leipzig, who was not involved in the study.
"At this moment many such grasslands face abandonment, because appropriate management with livestock is very expensive," van Klink said in an email. "We know that if no management would take place at all, such grasslands would turn into … cold, dark forests with not much undergrowth. This would certainly lead to the extinction of all five butterfly species from the site."
Konvička said he believes many projects neglect the role of missing "ecological engineers" — sometimes called "ecosystem" engineers — that is, species that serve significant functions through the alteration, maintenance or destruction of habitats. As with the Exmoor ponies in this case, they may not be the original inhabitants, but the aim of rewilding is to get the ecosystem functioning again.
"At the scale of national parks, restoring all the missing ecosystem components is the only way in the long term," he said.
Nanticha Ocharoenchai is a communications graduate and environmental writer from Thailand, where she initiated the climate strike movement.
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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1. Stay Informed<p>A first order of business in pet evacuation planning is to understand and be ready for the possible threats in your area. Visit <a href="https://www.ready.gov/be-informed" target="_blank">Ready.gov</a> to learn more about preparing for potential disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. Then pay attention to related updates by tuning <a href="http://www.weather.gov/nwr/" target="_blank">NOAA Weather Radio</a> to your local emergency station or using the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/mobile-app" target="_blank">FEMA app</a> to get National Weather Service alerts.</p>
2. Ensure Your Pet is Easily Identifiable<p><span>Household pets, including indoor cats, should wear collars with ID tags that have your mobile phone number. </span><a href="https://www.avma.org/microchipping-animals-faq" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Microchipping</a><span> your pets will also improve your chances of reunion should you become separated. Be sure to add an emergency contact for friends or relatives outside your immediate area.</span></p><p>Additionally, use <a href="https://secure.aspca.org/take-action/order-your-pet-safety-pack" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">'animals inside' door/window stickers</a> to show rescue workers how many pets live there. (If you evacuate with your pets, quickly write "Evacuated" on the sticker so first responders don't waste time searching for them.)</p>
3. Make a Pet Evacuation Plan<p> "No family disaster plan is complete without including your pets and all of your animals," says veterinarian Heather Case in <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9NRJkFKAm4" target="_blank">a video</a> produced by the American Veterinary Medical Association.</p><p>It's important to determine where to take your pet in the event of an emergency.</p><p>Red Cross shelters and many other emergency shelters allow only service animals. Ask your vet, local animal shelters, and emergency management officials for information on local and regional animal sheltering options.</p><p>For those with access to the rare shelter that allows pets, CDC offers <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/emergencies/pets-in-evacuation-centers.html" target="_blank">tips on what to expect</a> there, including potential health risks and hygiene best practices.</p><p>Beyond that, talk with family or friends outside the evacuation area about potentially hosting you and/or your pet if you're comfortable doing so. Search for pet-friendly hotel or boarding options along key evacuation routes.</p><p>If you have exotic pets or a mix of large and small animals, you may need to identify multiple locations to shelter them.</p><p>For other household pets like hamsters, snakes, and fish, the SPCA recommends that if they normally live in a cage, they should be transported in that cage. If the enclosure is too big to transport, however, transfer them to a smaller container temporarily. (More on that <a href="https://www.spcai.org/take-action/emergency-preparedness/evacuation-how-to-be-pet-prepared" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">here</a>.)</p><p>For any pet, a key step is to establish who in your household will be the point person for gathering up pets and bringing their supplies. Keep in mind that you may not be home when disaster strikes, so come up with a Plan B. For example, you might form a buddy system with neighbors with pets, or coordinate with a trusted pet sitter.</p>
4. Prepare a Pet Evacuation Kit<p>Like the emergency preparedness kit you'd prepare for humans, assemble basic survival items for your pets in a sturdy, easy-to-grab container. Items should include:</p><ul><li>Water, food, and medicine to last a week or two;</li><li>Water, food bowls, and a can opener if packing wet food;</li><li>Litter supplies for cats (a shoebox lined with a plastic bag and litter may work);</li><li>Leashes, harnesses, or vehicle restraints if applicable;</li><li>A <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/pet-first-aid-supplies-checklist" target="_blank">pet first aid kit</a>;</li><li>A sturdy carrier or crate for each cat or dog. In addition to easing transport, these may serve as your pet's most familiar or safe space in an unfamiliar environment;</li><li>A favorite toy and/or blanket;</li><li>If your pet is prone to anxiety or stress, the American Kennel Club suggests adding <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stress-relieving items</a> like an anxiety vest or calming sprays.</li></ul><p>In the not-unlikely event that you and your pet have to shelter in different places, your kit should also include:</p><ul><li>Detailed information including contact information for you, your vet, and other emergency contacts;</li><li>A list with phone numbers and addresses of potential destinations, including pet-friendly hotels and emergency boarding facilities near your planned evacuation routes, plus friends or relatives in other areas who might be willing to host you or your pet;</li><li>Medical information including vaccine records and a current rabies vaccination tag;</li><li>Feeding notes including portions and sizes in case you need to leave your pet in someone else's care;</li><li>A photo of you and your pet for identification purposes.</li></ul>
5. Be Ready to Evacuate at Any Time<p>It's always wise to be prepared, but stay especially vigilant in high-risk periods during fire or hurricane season. Practice evacuating at different times of day. Make sure your grab-and-go kit is up to date and in a convenient location, and keep leashes and carriers by the exit door. You might even stow a thick pillowcase under your bed for middle-of-the-night, dash-out emergencies when you don't have time to coax an anxious pet into a carrier. If forecasters warn of potential wildfire, a hurricane, or other dangerous conditions, bring outdoor pets inside so you can keep a close eye on them.</p><p>As with any emergency, the key is to be prepared. As the American Kennel Club points out, "If you panic, it will agitate your dog. Therefore, <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pet disaster preparedness</a> will not only reduce your anxiety but will help reduce your pet's anxiety too."</p>
Evacuating Horses and Other Farm Animals<p>The same basic principles apply for evacuating horses and most other livestock. Provide each with some form of identification. Ensure that adequate food, water, and medicine are available. And develop a clear plan on where to go and how to get there.</p><p>Sheltering and transporting farm animals requires careful coordination, from identifying potential shelter space at fairgrounds, racetracks, or pastures, to ensuring enough space is available in vehicles and trailers – not to mention handlers and drivers on hand to support the effort.</p><p>For most farm animals, the Red Cross advises that you consider precautionary evacuation when a threat seems imminent but evacuation orders haven't yet been announced. The American Veterinary Medical Association has <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/large-animals-and-livestock-disasters" target="_blank">more information</a>.</p>
Bottom Line: If You Need to Evacuate, So Do Your Pets<p>As the Humane Society warns, pets left behind in a disaster can easily be injured, lost, or killed. Plan ahead to make sure you can safely evacuate your entire household – furry members included.</p>
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