New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2000) 24(2): 139- 152

Social and spatial structure and range use by Kaimanawa wild horses (Equus caballus : Equidae)

Research Article
Wayne L. Linklater 1
Elissa Z. Cameron 1,3
Kevin J. Stafford 2
Clare J. Veltman 1,4
  1. Ecology Group, Institute of Natural Resources, Massey University, Private Bag 11-222, Palmerston North, New Zealand
  2. Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences, Massey University, Private Bag 11-222, Palmerston North, New Zealand
  3. Present address: The Meerkat Project (Cambridge University, U.K.), Mammal Research Institute, Depart,ent of Zoology and Entomology, University of Pretoria, Pretoria 0002, South Africa
  4. Present address: Department of Conservation, Science and Research Dividion, P.O. Box 10420, Wellington, New Zealand

We measured horse density, social structure, habitat use, home ranges and altitudinal micro-climates in the south-western Kaimanawa ranges east of Waiouru, New Zealand. Horse density in the Auahitotara ecological sector averaged 3.6 horses.per km² and ranged from 0.9 to 5.2 horses.per km² within different zones. The population's social structure was like that of other feral horse populations with an even adult sex ratio, year round breeding groups (bands) with stable adult membership consisting of 1 to 11 mares, 1 to 4 stallions, and their predispersal offspring, and bachelor groups with unstable membership. Bands and bachelor males were loyal to undefended home ranges with central core use areas. Band home range sizes varied positively with adult band size. Home ranges overlapped entirely with other home ranges. Horses were more likely to occupy north facing aspects, short tussock vegetation and flush zones and avoid high altitudes, southern aspects, steeper slopes, bare ground and forest remnants. Horses were more likely to be on north facing aspects, steeper slopes, in exotic and red tussock grasslands and flush zones during winter and at lower altitudes and on gentler slopes in spring and summer. Seasonal shifts by bands to river basin and stream valley floors in spring and higher altitudes in autumn and winter are attributed to the beginning of foaling and mating in spring and formation of frost inversion layers in winter. Given horse habitat selectivity and the presence of other ungulate herbivores, results from present exclosures are likely to exaggerate the size of horse impacts on range vegetation. Proposals to manage the population by relocation and confinement are likely to modify current social structure and range use behaviour and may lead to the need for more intensive management in the longer term.