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Aurochs Come Back to Belarus: Unique Rewilding Initiative to Help Biodiversity Restoration

05.03.2020
Heck cattle brought to the Belarusian floodplain meadows of Pahost natural boundary (“Middle Pripyat” nature reserve) will allow to test the method of the unique floodplain meadows biodiversity restoration. 15 bulls of the cattle breed brought from the Latvian “Kemeri” national park have been released into the wild after veterinary checks and quarantine. Their free-grazing will cover the area of 200 hectares.

The rewilding initiative is implemented within the GEF funded “Wetlands” project in partnership with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection of Belarus and the "Turovschina" JSC, one of the key partners of the project.


The Heck cattle are the result of an attempt by the Heck brothers to breed back the extinct aurochs from modern auroch-derived cattle in the 1920s and 1930s in Germany. The breed is the closest to the extinct aurochs (known also as the urus/ure) that used to inhabit that Belarusian territory. The last European auroch disappeared in 1627. The animals brought to Belarus from Latvia are the descendants of the breed by the Heck brothers.


Over the recent 20 years, Belarusian floodplain meadows have started to actively overgrow with shrubs and to lose their attractiveness for various species of fauna due to the reduced traditional agricultural use. Free-grazing of the Heck cattle and mowing will allow to test the method of sustainable management of floodplain meadows that will contribute to the conservation of globally threatened species.


Sustainable traditional use of floodplain meadows and keeping them open will allow to restore and preserve the key nesting sites of rare bird species and the largest European concentrations of migratory species on Turausky meadow.


Prior to that, Belarusian “Sporauski”, “Nalibokski” and “Zvanets” nature reserves, together with the "Turovschina" JSC have been provided with the new $600 000 special equipment purchased within the “Wetlands” project. Its use will help to stop the overgrowing of floodplain meadows with trees and shrubs and contribute to the restoration of globally threatened species preserving the unique biodiversity of Belarus. In the Zhitkovichi district, the new equipment will allow to clear a total area of 560 hectares of unwanted vegetation.


“The topic of ecosystems conservation is very important for Belarus. The livestock is decreasing in line with the decrease in the number of the population in many rural places, that results in the overgrowing of river floodplains and the loss of biodiversity in these areas. The implementation of such projects with the support of international organizations helps to restore and preserve ecosystems. Within the GEF-funded “Wetlands” project and thanks to “Turovschina” JSC, we will be able to demonstrate one of the methods of ecosystems restoration – returning aurochs to Turov region and purchasing special equipment for clearing the shrubs will help to preserve floodplain meadows,” commented Alexander Korbut, Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection of Belarus.

“It is symbolic that we are demonstrating the results of the rewilding initiative at the Pripyat floodplain meadows today – on the World Wildlife Day annually celebrated on March 3. The return of aurochs to Turov region within the GEF-funded “Wetlands” project is one of the practical steps that Belarus is taking today at the national and regional levels to preserve ecosystems and wildlife. This is an example of the transformational solution using the latest technology and traditional knowledge. Today Belarus pays considerable attention to the conservation and restoration of natural resources and considers it a priority, which will be further reflected in five-year programs and strategies. The country has achieved significant success in sustainable management of forest and wetland ecosystems, including special achievements in legislation for the protection and use of wetlands and rewetting,” commented Alexandra Solovieva, UNDP Resident Representative in Belarus

Alexandra Solovieva, UNDP Resident Representative in Belarus (on the right) and Alexander Korbut, Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection of Belarus (in the centre). Photo by Sergei Gapon.

The method has been previously tested in many European countries – similar initiatives on the Heck cattle rewilding have already been successfully implemented in such countries as the Netherlands, Spain, and Latvia. Many rewilding programs receive further cross-border development – for example the Netherlands shares cattle for free with other countries, which, in return, promise to share animals with new countries after the cattle number increases. Thus, the Dutch Heck bulls first came to Latvia, and then to Belarus.

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