Natural grazing and large herbivores
Natural grazing by large herbivores is a key process for suitable development and natural maintenance of ecosystems.
In wild nature the animals graze all year round. This practice was well understood and practiced for thousands of years by the ancient Balkan livestock farmers, who followed with their herds the natural rhythm. But with intensification and regulation of farming these old traditions were lost.
Natural grazing is based on the principal that an area can feed as many animals as can survive in winter months, when food is limited. This ensures that in spring and summer, when the food is plentiful there will be no overgrazing and this allows vegetation to grow, bloom and disperse its seeds. In winter the herbivores additionally eat twigs and bark of shrubs and trees and so they have strong impact on vegetation. Thereby they create a natural mosaic of alternating grasslands, formations of shrubs and forests and this mosaic landscape is home for many animal and plant species that directly or indirectly depend on the large herbivores’ role.
In the Eastern Rhodopes various species of large herbivores occur(ed). Each has its specific food preferences, intensity of grazing, territory size and land use. Each has its specific influence on the vegetation. All those grazing animals combined create and manipulate the structure of vegetation. For example, cattle opens spaces between shrubs and help making the area available for horses. Horses for their part prepare suitable habitats for other grazing animals.
The pastures host a great number of insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, small mammals – an important ring of food chain for other species. On the other hand large herbivores themselves are an essential food resource for predators and vultures. This way large herbivores play a key role in restoring and improving biodiversity.
It is one of the main goals of the New Thracian Gold project to restore and protect the typical mosaic landscape and unique biodiversity of the Eastern Rhodopes. The best way of doing so is by restoring the key process of natural grazing. Reintroduction of extinct large herbivores and semi wild cattle and horses is an essential tool to achieve this aim.