Shaun Barr spends some time getting to know the Koniks of Wicken Fen and photographing their behaviour.
Walking alone into a field of wild horses, I suddenly begin to realise, is not for the faint-hearted. Should anything happen there is no other human being in sight, or even shouting distance. I am mindful that, just as with any other wild animal, respect and trust are vitally important.
I had been given a full safety briefing beforehand, and now remind myself of some of the precautions I would need to take, including evasive action should I end up in danger. Initially, I was instructed to keep a ditch between me and the horses.
I am nervously excited. I have held an overwhelming desire to see these beautiful creatures up close for some time and I'm thrilled that the moment has arrived. It takes a walk across several fields before I'm able to finally spot the herd, and so I carefully find a place to stand - along a perimeter fence to start with - and begin to watch in utter awe.
Thus began an idyllic three days that could not have ended with a more joyful sight. But to the beginning…
A Konik will readily express its unhappiness with another
How It Began
Since childhood I’ve had an inexplicable fascination with wild horses. For me there’s an indescribable thrill at seeing a herd roaming across the landscape; unfettered, unbridled, free to wander just as the wild herds of the past. There’s also a palpable excitement, an almost brooding danger to seeing these creatures in their natural surroundings.
On a camping holiday when I was about 7 year's old, I got up before the rest of the family to go and see a horse I’d spotted the day before. I clambered over a gate and I vividly remember the surrounding stillness and a heavy dew on the grass as I slowly walked across the field towards him. He suddenly reared up wildly in front of me on his hind legs, screeching and snorting furiously, towering above me. I turned and fled for my life, leaving a shoe behind in the mud and crying. Returning to the scene later with the family to retrieve my abandoned shoe was as humiliating as it sounds. But despite my dented pride, my love of horses has stayed with me to this day.
Notwithstanding childhood experiences I have a reason to be really cautious now. I have deliberately timed the visit to capture the stallions at their most combative – and this is the season of ill will when it comes to maintaining or challenging dominance within the herd. And although their size just about designates them as ponies, their sheer weight and strength makes them a horse by any other measure.
Friction within the herd is never far away.
A Strong, Powerful Breed
Muscular and powerful, this is a breed built to withstand the elements, including the notoriously wet fenland.
The Koniks are all battle-scarred, the stallions heavily so, their flanks significantly flecked and marked with old bite and kick wounds. The days I spend with the Koniks pass with a mixture of benign pastoral peace, which often vanishes within seconds whenever an aggressive challenge is made. For a few minutes there is violent pandemonium quickly followed by a period of quiet every bit as peaceful as before; as though nothing has happened.
There are five distinct harems within this herd and it doesn’t take me long to realise that each group displays very different characteristics. Each harem is led by a stallion whose position as head of the group can often be challenged.
Dual - sparring Koniks put on quite a display.
Group Differences Within The Herd
I notice that one of the stallions keeps his harem a good field length away from the other groups (clearly not taking any chances) – he maintains this distance at all times. The other groups move around in closer proximity to each other, and the friction that this can cause is never far away. But I’m keen to keep the closest eye on another group. A group which is not a stable harem with any direct leadership but rather a group of youngsters, challenging each other repeatedly, as well as other groups. They are without doubt the most mobile, and whenever I hear the sudden thunderous galloping of hooves, it’s very often theirs.
Koniks go back a long way: a rare, primitive breed, thought to be Polish in origin. The dark dorsal strip marking on their backs and the barring on their lower legs telling signatures of their ancient lineage.
So many primitive breeds went extinct, perhaps none more famously than the Tarpan, from which the Koniks are thought to be related.
The Konik is a striking horse, with strong features.
Conservation And The Koniks
It’s encouraging to know that, in the 21st Century, this ancient breed is playing such a vital role in conservation , helping to arrest some of the rapid species loss of both flora and fauna.
The National Trust introduced the Koniks to Wicken Fen with the specific role of better managing the grassland through grazing that is proven to be beneficial for a number of valuable species, which in turn helps to increase biodiversity. These horses will tend to tackle particularly invasive species such as rushes, thus allowing a broader spectrum of other species to become established.
A question I’ve often heard asked is “why not use a native breed? Dartmoor, Exmoor, Fell? Surely Britain has enough native breeds without introducing non-natives?” The simple answer to this is that, whilst British native horses and ponies are tough and hardy, none have the natural ability to withstand the very wet ground conditions that the fen is famous for. The Koniks were chosen for their exceptional ability to cope with such conditions.
Young Koniks, not yet part of a group, regularly run for the joy of it.
By the second day of photographing the Konik ponies, I have a much better understanding of the horses’ movements and behaviour patterns. Looking through the viewfinder of the camera leaves me a little vulnerable as I lose the peripheral vision I really need to see what is going on around me, so I rely heavily on listening and regularly moving the camera away.
I was told one of the biggest potential dangers is when a mare is being driven by a stallion, for in that chase the mare will avoid nothing to keep moving forward. As time goes on, I start to pick up the little indications of where trouble might be brewing. I always make sure I have established the whereabouts of the mixed group of youngsters – the most likely source of fighting – and once that's done it is much easier to keep an eye on any fighting amongst the various harems.
The mixed group provide lots of entertainment throughout my time at Wicken Fen. All would be absolute calm, with all the Koniks quietly grazing, or simply standing motionless, when the sudden pounding of hooves begins to thunder behind me as they break into a gallop once again, charging around for no apparent reason beyond the sheer joy of the run.
It will be another year or two before this mixed group become part of their own harems, but for now they are solely intent on fun.
A Konik spurning the attention of another.
A Foal Is Born
By the third day (and by now the horses have become like old friends), I am privileged to see something really special: the birth of a foal. And watching that little pony, gingerly and tentatively rise to its shaky hooves, Bambi-like, is something I will never forget.
It is wonderfully absorbing to watch the mother’s fastidious maternal care of the foal, as well as the reactions of the rest of the herd; some of which are permitted to come and ‘visit’ the new-born, while others are warned in no uncertain terms to come nowhere near.
New life: a just-born konik foal.
I am mindful that the last few hours of my time with the horses is coming to a close and I need to start the journey back up to Cumbria. The experience has been so absorbing, so intense, and ultimately, so thrillingly exhilarating, that I feel as if I've been there for much longer than three days
A Konik mare taking care of her new-born foal.
I feel I have gained a deeper understanding of the horses, and look at this breed with an even greater respect. I have gained the Konik’s trust, but have never taken it for granted, or at any point confidently assumed what would happen next.
During that time I have gained a deeper understanding of the horses combined with an even greater respect. I have gained the Konik’s trust, but have never taken it for granted, or at any point confidently assumed what would happen next.
Two curious Konik foals eye the camera.
I leave a little reluctantly, now even more in awe at these magnificent creatures than when I arrived, and I look forward to one day revisiting them again.
Konik photography prints by Shaun Barr are available to purchase - please go to the Contact page to get in touch and place an order.