Reviving Europe’s biodiversity with exotic animals
Scientists are bringing back long-lost species, such as water buffalo, to encourage the spread of native plants that fare poorly in Europe’s human-dominated landscape.
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Within a short time, a number of similar projects like the one in Töpchin have sprung up across Germany. Only a few kilometers west of Berlin, the Heinz Sielmann Foundation has set free 19 Przhevalsky horses, natives of Mongolia, along with 41 European bison, in the Döberitzer heathland, a former military training ground. The goal is for the wild horses and European bison to regularly graze the area, cropping tree saplings and encouraging the spread of heat-loving species found in the heathland.Skip to next paragraph
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A third project near Berlin that uses large herbivores for conservation is set in another truly anthropogenic landscape — a former sewage treatment farm. In the 1980s, the sewage farm was shut down and discussions ensued about what to do with the property. Since 2011, the result is a project that aims to create one of the largest sylvan pasture areas in Europe.
“On more than 800 hectares [2,000 acres], we are now trying to create this new landscape type that is ideal for rare and endangered species — an open forest,” says Andreas Schulze, project manager for Nature in the Barnim Region, a public/private partnership of local authorities, environmental organizations, organic farms, and private citizens.
Schulze uses yet another mix of herbivores for the grazing: Koniks — ponies supposedly derived from the ancient European wild horse — as well as British cattle varieties like the White Park and the Scottish Highland, which are more robust and thus cope better with rugged and wet terrain than ordinary German cows. In Holland’s Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve, a similar mix of koniks and other herbivores is used to keep biodiversity levels high.
“Grazing with koniks and other large herbivores is the best approach for conservation in Germany,” says Josef Reichholf, a prominent zoologist and evolutionary biologist from Munich’s Technical University, who has long advocated the reintroduction of large herbivores to enhance biodiversity in Germany’s human-dominated landscape. Reichholf points out that the German landscape is exposed to a constant downpour of fertilizer from the sky, as car and factory exhausts add nitrous oxides to the atmosphere. This airborne fertilizer helps nonspecialized plants grow, which reduces and finally excludes rare plant species adapted to nutrient-poor habitats. Dense vegetation also creates a damp, cool surface microclimate, which is detrimental to many species of insects and birds of the open landscape. Large herbivores crop this excessive plant growth, allowing rarer native species to flourish.
Unlike in the tropics, large parts of Europe’s biological diversity of animals and plants occur outside of forests: on meadows, in fens, and on heathlands.
“We need the buffaloes to remove biomass, otherwise these sites would loose their special plants and be overgrown by ubiquitous species,” says Rössling from the Brandenburg Nature Conservation Fund. And what of German cows? “Buffaloes are very resilient, they have strong hooves and munch away on nearly all kinds of plants, whereas modern cows are simply not adjusted any more to living in marshlands,” he says.
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Zoologist Reichholf sees a wider importance of experiments like those around Berlin for the whole of Europe. Currently, European consumers eat meat and drink milk mainly from cows kept in large, industrial facilities and fed with imported soy from rainforest nations.