The wild horses of the Danube Delta

Free as the wind, roaming through the second largest and one of the best preserved deltas on the continent, these are some of the last wild horses in Europe.

Yet, on this small patch of land situated in the heart of Danube Delta in Romania, horses pay a steep price for their freedom.

Some people believe that the future of these animals is to be slaughtered for their meat, which in turn could find its way into the food chain in Western Europe.

On the 18th of May 2011, the ‘Letea Massacre’ scandal broke nationally in Romania. For two weeks, every Romanian news bulletin, newspaper, blog, and website had its eyes on the same story: More than 70 wild horses and their foals had been gathered in a pen to be sent to the slaughterhouse.

The village of Letea, in Tulcea, Romania, is under the jurisdiction of the C.A Rosetti City Hall. At the time, the City Hall told the Romanian Newspaper Gandul, that the horses were multiplying too fast, had left their reserve, destroyed forests and village pastures, and even broke down a school fence.

As a result, the authorities called in a number of companies to round up the animals, take blood tests to see if they were healthy or suffering from infectious anaemia, a disease contagious to cows, and to find a solution to the problem.

However, the outrage was such that it became the subject of protest by charities and NGOs such as Vier Pfoten who decided that action needed to be taken.

Wild horses of the Danube Delta, Romania

Wild horses roam free in the Danube Delta [Mediafax Foto/Mihai Vasile]

This scandal is just one small example of a much larger issue. According to several sources, there are strong ties worth millions of pounds between the Romanian horses and the European meat industry.

Even though Romania doesn’t have equine stock farms, according to The Guardian it is the third largest exporter of horse meat in Europe.

“On this small patch of land situated in the heart of Danube Delta in Romania, horses pay a steep price for their freedom.”

Most of these horses come from middlemen who take advantage of poorly-educated and poorly-paid farmers, buying animals regardless of their condition or health, and selling them on to abattoirs at an inflated price.

This explains why the number of exports has doubled, and the horse population has dropped by 40%, according to INS (Romanian National Institute of Statistics)

Before the First World War, Romania reportedly had 2,000,000 horses, in 1940s there were around 800,000, but by 2004 the number had dropped to nearly 500,000.

In 2004 Romania exported more than 20,000 horses, in 2011 the number had increased to 40.000, and that over 10 years this totalled around 200,000.

Two years after the events of the ‘Letea Massacre,’ the infamous European meat adulteration scandal hit the press when it was discovered that food products advertised as beef were found to contain horse meat.

In Britain, this became the so-called ‘Horse Meat Scandal’. The media phenomenon broke on January 15, 2013 when frozen beef burgers in Tesco and several other supermarkets were found to contain horse DNA.

Horse meat, while not harmful to humans, is considered a culinary taboo in the UK and other countries.

Later that year, several Dutch meat traders confirmed they bought a consignment of horse meat from two Romanian slaughterhouses and sold it to food processing companies in France, where horse meat is regularly served. They also claimed the meat was clearly labelled as horse.

However, in May 2013, Willy Selten was found guilty of falsifying documentation and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for selling 300 tonnes of horse meat labelled as beef, which explains how Romanian horse meat was finding its way into beef products being sold in British and Irish supermarkets.

Back in Romania though, during the coverage of the ‘Letea Massacre,’ all over the media you could see pictures of wounded horses.

Kuki Barbuceanu, Project Manager of Vier Pfoten Romania (Four Paws) said that the main cause of the injuries was overcrowding in the pens, although they live in groups in the wilderness made up of a stallion, several mares, and their foals.

Barbuceanu explained that: “They bite each other, some have multiple wounds, and there are lame horses. From the point of view of animal protection, these things are classified as physical mistreatment and torture.”

In Romania, such crimes are punishable by a fine of 1,000 to 10,000 lei (£167 to £1,670) and imprisonment for between six months and three years.

  • The wild horses from Letea overcrowded in the pens [Gandul.info]

The notion of culling horses sparked controversy, but while some believe that decision was a mistake, other research shows that the horses have a negative impact on human settlements as well as the ecosystem of the Danube Delta.

Artefact travelled to the Danube Delta in Romania to find out more about the current situation of the wild horses and the most recent projects implemented in the area.

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The Danube Delta is a protected nature reserve, home to all kind of flora and fauna, a wildlife enthusiast’s ultimate paradise.It all starts with the Danube River, which flows 1,788 miles from its springs in Germany’s Black Forest down to the Black Sea.

Just before reaching the sea it forms the second largest and best preserved of Europe’s deltas: 2,200 square miles of rivers, canals, marshes, tree-fringed lakes and reed islands.

According to UNESCO the delta hosts more than 300 species of birds, as well as 45 freshwater fish species in its numerous lakes and marshes.

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Letea Forest is home to around 500 different species of plants and over two-thirds of the animal species from the Danube Delta, in a landscape that varies between the sand dunes of the desert to a subtropical forest, with oak trees and vines that grow up to 25 metres.

Here wild horses gallop freely, uninterrupted by man, between the trees and dunes. In 1930 the forest was declared a Biosphere Reserve, part of the UNESCO World Heritage, the oldest of its type in Romania. Some experts believe there are around 4,000 wild horses living in the forest of Letea, while others have identified only about 500.

Romania didn’t always have wild horses in the Letea Forest and Vier Pfoten Romania claims their ancestors arrived with the Tatars on Romanian land, and settled down around 400 years ago.

These horses were eventually joined by workhorses who, after the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989, were abandoned because they were no longer needed on the government’s collective farms.

Local villagers also claim that during the reign of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, inhabitants were unable to feed their animals and therefore they were set free.

Abandoned in the Danube Delta, the horse population multiplied by thousands and rediscovered their wild side, taking control of their new territory.

Horses at Cai Salbatici, Padurea Letea

Horses survive on land which cannot be used to graze cattle [Mediafax Foto/Vier Pfoten]

After a nine hour drive and three hour journey in a catamaran, Doru Cioparcianu, a travel guide from Sulina greeted us and led us to his boat.

We travelled to Letea Forest through breath-taking canals full of lily pads, pelicans and bird colonies.

He started by telling us that in Letea, there are more horses than cattle: “The cow has nothing to graze here,” he said.

Even though locals respect, love, and cherish the wild side of this animal, inevitably a problem arises when the human population is outnumbered.

According to them, there are currently more horses than people living in the area. Allegedly, Letea has less than 1,000 inhabitants and between 3,000 to 4,000 horses.

Marcel, a local villager says this causes problems: “There used to be a balance. The horse is a beautiful animal, villagers respect them but there are too many of them now. After wild horses establish themselves somewhere, they leave the terrain in a deplorable state. This is why areas of plant life disappear after taking 50 years to develop.”

Making a living in this isolated part of the country is a real challenge, especially in the winter time when their activities are reduced to fishing, reed cutting and livestock farming.

“In the area, we only have livestock farming left. We live on a grind and harvesting hay for our animals, which are our main source of income, becomes a real struggle” said Marcel.

Winters are also particularly harsh for the horses that have to make do with whatever tree bark and roots they can unearth from the snow. In order to survive they would eat anything and everything in their path but not all of them are successful.

“After the horse meat scandal in 2013, Romania has not exported [horse meat] for a year or so.”
Kuki Barbuceanu

Even though the creatures are very resistant to bitter cold, the lack of food proves to be fatal, and in the winter of 2010/2011 locals say half of them died.

Here, the ‘Letea Massacre’ is still on everyone’s lips. Doru told us: “The entire scandal started from the Forestry Department (Ocolul Silvic). Rangers have complained that the horses eat tree bark in winter and buds in spring when the forest is blooming. They began to take action, actually ‘action’ is an overstatement, it was more like ‘let’s collect and export them’.

“Indeed they were a bit tormented, just not as it was exaggerated. It so happened that someone from a television passed by and so the mediatisation began.”

Doru also believes the situation to be no different at present: “Even now, while the Forestry Department is upset because they eat trees, locals are disappointed they cannot make hay after the horses have been grazing.”

Councillor Florin Papadac of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve Authority (ARBDD) said: “For tourists it’s nice to see them running in such studs, but for nature and the forest ecosystem which is unique in Europe is a negative factor. They simply disrupt the natural balance of the ecosystem and forest. Basically they should be taken out of the area.”

Papadac argues that the real problem is the techniques used to capture the horses: “Massacre? They were not murdered. The method of capturing and the way they were gathered in a pen, that is what actually launched the disagreement of the civil society and the NGOs that took a stand. We are in the third millennium, they could have been tranquillised. There are other ways to catch these poor creatures.”

The ARBDD and Vier Pfoten Romania Foundation (VPR) signed a collaboration protocol to implement a birth control project for the wild horses found in ‘Grindul Letea,’ from Danube Delta.

When animals reach a high number in a particular area, they can rapidly deplete the food resources and create an imbalanced habitat.

ARBDD and VPR believe methods to limit horse numbers are required when food is depleted. The objective of their collaboration is to support both the environment and animals.

Their goal is to try to preserve the protected ecosystem as well as contribute to the development of tourism throughout the presence of wild horses.

The birth control program focuses on identifying and vaccinating the mares with a contraceptive in order to reduce the number of animals in the area.

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Kuki Barbuceanu, Vier Pfoten project manager told us that “The current number of vaccinated mares is 150, 100 in 2013-2014 season and 50 in 2014-2015 season. If the normal calving percentage of adult mares in Letea was 68% annually, through our contraception project it was reduced to 20% of treated animals.

“Depending on the results of the impact horses have on local vegetation, their dynamics and interventions similar to other horse populations of similar pathways, we currently believe that a reduction by 40% of the total can be considered sustainable.”

During the wild horses media scandal in 2011, all the attention was directed towards the way the animals were treated and captured.

VPR also aims to protect the horses from abuse, cruelty, capture, and death. Kuki Barbuceanu says that on average, 10 horses are rescued from different critical situations each year.

The Romanian organisation is currently in the process of developing scientific studies to assess the impact of the horse populations on the elements with importance in the area.

“Basically this process involves the evaluation of local flora fluctuation depending on the presence or absence of horses. We will study different samples from which we will be able to tell the maximum level of sustainability of a horse population. Depending on these results we will be able to determine the reproduction control program parameters in the future,” Barbuceanu told us.

Looking through the statistics published by The Guardian, Barbuceanu says he finds it hard to believe that Romania is currently one of the biggest horse meat exporters in Europe: “After the horse meat scandal in 2013, Romania has not exported [horse meat] for a year or so.”

He believes the ‘Letea Massacre’ was the biggest media event in the Romanian press: “It is true that during that period of time, there was no other topic more important than this. It definitely kept the media on their toes.”

For the ARBDD Papadac also recognises that the wild horses being currently the biggest attraction in Danube Delta comes as no surprise following the scandal in 2011: “All the tourists who come here to get informed about the touristic attractions are mainly interested in these horses. No one asks me about flora, fauna, the largest number of white pelicans in Europe or other aspects of this particular ecosystem. Everyone asks me about the wild horses in Letea Forest.”