It’s not unusual to see horses in and around the Will Rogers Coliseum and the cattle barns, but for people driving down University Drive near the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, it might seem a little odd to see them grazing, staring out at the traffic whizzing by.
BRIT has put 12 horses on its property to simulate the effects of large grazing herbivores, like bison. Herds added to the health of native prairies by eating plants and keeping the plant height low enough for grass seeds to germinate and by providing fertilizer, according to a BRIT press release. BRIT is hoping to restore the land behind BRIT’s building to native prairie land. To do this, BRIT scientists have chosen to allow horses on its landscape to help aerate and disturb the soil with their hooves and to keep the prairie “mowed” for grass seed germination. According to the BRIT news release, the Grand Prairie and Eastern Woodlands (Cross Timbers) come together in the Fort Worth area, creating grasslands that evolved under conditions of episodic drought, regular fire and from use by large mammals such as bison, elk, deer and horses. Slightly different from the Tall Grass prairies further north, the Fort Worth prairie has been mostly converted to urban habitat. BRIT is hoping to reconnect Texans with their natural ‘sense of place’ by restoring a piece of the environment to native flora. The prairie is located behind BRIT’s new platinum LEED certified building and under what was once a large brick building and paved parking lot. Scientists at the facility searched regionally for soil types similar to what is native to BRIT’s prairie. This donor soil was used to create research plots, providing valuable data for prairie restoration in urban environments.
While here only a short time, the scientists are relying on horse hooves and horse hunger to keep the prairie at its best. Prairies are dominated by grasses, but also contain a fair number of forbs (herbaceous flowering plant). Horse hooves help create new openings in prairie soil that will allow the shed seed of these plants space to germinate. As the horses eat down the grasses, light will penetrate further into the prairie, also helping new seedlings get started and of course, horses provide added fertilizer along the way. Mowing, while helping with seed dispersal, doesn’t provide the same benefit to new seedlings. As the experiment continues, BRIT scientists hope to learn what is needed to restore native prairies, not just in urban environments.