This week I saw the nature film, de Nieuwe Wildernis in Tuschinski. It covers a year amongst the flora and fauna of the rewilding project in de Oostvaardersplassen. A herd of Konik horses (extremely hardy Polish breed) provide the narrative, a black filly foal supplying the emotional highs and lows of this beautifully filmed piece. The film is not without controversy however. The herd animals are kept within a huge but enclosed space and because of the lack of grazing in winter many of them die of starvation and their carcasses are left to be scavenged.
Horses are for most of us, domesticated animals that require human care. The film shows a wildness that is lacking from the over-manicured Dutch landscape and you could argue that it’s impossible to have that glimpse of wildness without inherent animal suffering. Having grown up on a farm, amongst ponies and horses, it’s deeply instilled in me that we should care for animals when they’re sick and feed them when they’re hungry.
In one of the scenes a foal gambols in the spring sunlight and, imitating its elders taking a cool mud bath, frolics into the ditch and gets stuck in the quagmire. Eventually he manages to break free but by then the sun has gone in, the foal cools off and lies down on the bank, exhausted. The rest of the herd gather round and start pawing at him to get up. Running with the herd is essential to a prey animal’s survival and this instinct to get foals on their feet is a built-in reflex.
A long-buried, dark memory from my childhood on the farm surfaced after watching this scene. I was about eleven or twelve, at home alone. Myra, our alpha brood mare was away visiting the stallion. Her offspring and some geldings that my sister and I rode for show-jumping were turned out in the field together. It was springtime and the horses were restless without their matriarchal leader. Our flock of pregnant ewes was out in the field too, and from the farmhouse window I saw that one of them had lambed. Nothing more than a white dot, the lamb lay still on the ground and the horses quickly circled around, pawing at it in what looked like a sadistic game. I grabbed my step-father’s wooden stick and ran down to the field shouting at them. I was boiling over with rage and disbelief at their cruelty. By the time I got there the blood-covered lamb was dead from its injuries, its frantic dam and I could do nothing to save it.
Until now, I have never understood why the horses ‘killed’ this lamb. But after watching that scene from de Nieuwe Wildernis, something clicked into place. Their pawing at the lamb was the adult horses’ instinct taking over. A young animal needed to stand up and run with the herd. Mares are often brought into the stable to foal, or they foal at night so I never knew about this pawing behaviour. After all these years I could forgive them, for that alone I am very grateful to this film. Whatever your feelings on rewilding projects, I urge you to go and see this movie before you pass judgement!