The Return of the Konik in Latvia

Grazing and tourism in Latvia

In 1999, ARK was invited by WWF Latvia to start the first grazing projects to serve two purposes. Like other Eastern European countries, Latvia needed natural grazers, like the Konik. After the collapse of communism, many extensive farmlands fell into disuse and were left abandoned to be slowly overgrown by trees, shrubs and reeds. The varied landscape, once developed by wild grazers, disappeared. Presently, the Netherlands has large groups of free-ranging herds of cattle and horses under almost wild circumstances. This is still unique in Europe. These wild grazers are well adapted to a life in the eastern European nature and are ready to resume the ecological function that they have had for thousands of years. Other features are the shoreline and bank vegetation where geese can breed again. Another not insignificant effect is that the herd seems to attract tourists who can give a boost to the weak economy of the Latvian rural area.

Tough circumstances

The herds are doing well and, with their offspring, have adapted easily to their new circumstances. In 2003, ARK could start some new projects, which now make a total of five and cover a total area of some 700 hectares. However, hard Latvian winters take their toll on the Koniks. The cattle seem to be better able to withstand the extreme cold. Moreover, Latvian herds are often faced with wolves but so far no animal has fallen prey to them. Undoubtedly we will gain interesting experiences with predators and other grazers that roam the area. The impact on the landscape of all these animals together will provide a wealth of information and will be very useful for similar projects elsewhere in Europe.

Tourism in Latvia

The herds of wild horses and cattle keep the interaction of nature in constant flux, and this will attract many tourists. Tourism can give the weak economy of the Latvian rural area an extra impetus. In 2001, ARK developed a trip that guarantees a special introduction to the Latvian wilderness. The Eco Tourist Services organisation is now so excited about it that they have included this trip in their special programmes.

A passage to Latvia

While staying in an attractive accommodation with guest families in the tiny Latvian village of Rucava, you can make day tours to various nature areas in the neighbourhood. The tour guides often go beyond the trodden path to see and experience the landscape where it is at its loveliest. They will visit the habitat of the herds of wild Koniks, roam with you through the dunes and the Baltic beach, will show a natural river valley and let you enjoy the primeval moorland landscape. They will also contact the local population for a sample of life in the Latvian countryside.
ARK's Jan van der Veen met his wife in Latvia where he found a second home. He will be the tour guide. Not bothering about tracks or roads he loves to guide you straight across the rugged area. This is the best way to enjoy the landscape intensely and to discover the prettiest places.

Crossbreeding the Latvian Brown and the Hungarian Steppe Cattle

In January 2000, ARK started in Latvia with crossbreeding the native Latvian Brown Cattle with the Scottish Highlander and the Hungarian Steppe Cattle, and the herd has so far yielded fourteen calves. Due to the harsh climate, the Latvian Brown founders of the line were used to being stabled in winter, and are now put up by two farmers with a walk-in shed where they also get feed supplement. The Latvian Brown is in fact a mixed breed and was created by crossbreeding the ancient mediaeval Latvian Red-and-white cattle, the Latvian Light-red and the Latvian Blue with the German Angler and Danish Red cattle to improve milk production.

The Latvian Brown make out the large majority of the females in this crossbreeding experiment. This was mainly for practical reasons because this breed, though becoming rarer, was relatively easy to come by, and a good number of female founders from different bloodlines could be bought. ARK wants to give this breed the chance to import their genetic adaptations to climate and habits into the herd, characteristics from which the herd may benefit in its development. Its resistance to diseases could be one characteristic, but there is a fair chance that the lively brown colour will become dominant. The hardened nineteenth-century strain - the Latvian Blue or Red-and-white - seems to show through clearly. This strain is favoured in the crossbreeding programme. Scottish Highland Cattle are mainly introduced for their hardiness, which makes that the animal can survive in wet and cold climatic conditions while making the most of poor forage, qualities that are essential in the Latvian climate. Their long furry coats and their late maturity play an equally important role. The Hungarian Steppe Cattle were introduced to add more volume to the crossing. With a wither height between 140 and 150 cm (which is 10 cm higher than the Heck Cattle) they can reach a weight of 550 kg (cows) to 800 kg (bulls). Together with their heavy long horns, they may benefit from their heavy weight if they must compete against wolves in the future. Another favourable characteristic is their long fur with a lovely natural marking and, again, the hardiness and late maturity (late fertility) of this breed. Genetic research proved that the mediaeval Baltic breed and the yellow Estonian Native Cattle are related to the Hungarian Steppe Cattle.

There have already been 15 crossings with the Highland breed and 10 crossings with the Steppe cattle. The eldest animals are now 3 years old and have calved. They have proven to withstand the whims of Latvian nature. Freezing temperatures of minus 30°C or even more have not seem to harm them; not only do they grow a thick coat with hair ten to fifteen centimetres long, but they also have a dual hair coat with a downy insulation and long outer guard hair. With their pretty, natural range of colouring, they are fawn-coloured at birth and develop their Heck colouring when they grow older. In selecting the breeds, the principal choice was made for a basis of the local brown cattle. With the Hungarian Steppe and the Highland cattle various qualities were added that can be useful in Latvian conditions. Their presence in the region was pure coincidence, but this opportunity was seized with thanks to let the first crossing happen. In September 2002, the first 8 crossbreeds were reintroduced in a 100-acre nature area on the shores of the Liepaja Lake. This group has been left to the whims of nature and has already gone wild. They don't trust people, shy as they are they live a secluded life in the marshy reed-lands or the close-wooded copses of the area. Only if you are lucky, or very patient, will you see the 16 head of cattle coming from their cover to graze.

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