The Dartmoor Pony – Combining Conservation and Heritage
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Any visitor crossing Dartmoor in Spring or Summer and seeing herds of ponies and their foals would find it hard to believe that the traditional, single colour Native Dartmoor pony is an endangered species.
These semi-feral herds contain ponies of varied shape, colour and type. All are owned by farmers with moorland grazing rights and all contribute to the management, heritage and history of the Dartmoor landscape and to its appeal for tourists.
Heritage is the reason the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust came about. It was established in 2005, initially as a project funded by the Dartmoor Pony Society and the Dartmoor National Park, due to increasing concerns about the dramatic reduction in true Dartmoor ponies running on the moor. Support to encourage farmers to prioritise breeding quality ‘true-to-type’ Pedigree and non-pedigree ponies was agreed and put in place through the DPHT.
The fear was that this iconic and popular British Native Breed could be lost from its land of origin – it’s on the Rare Breed Survival Trust’s Endangered list.
Retaining the true-to-type pony on Dartmoor is critical because being bred on the moor, they retain the special characteristics – tough, hardy and resilient, gentle and adaptable.
From the sturdy moorland-bred Dartmoors originated the registered Dartmoor pony, whose lineage is proven and breeding strictly regulated. Those bred on the moor thrive there and many are of a quality to compete successfully nationally and internationally.
It is important that new blood still comes from the moor and for many years a successful scheme run by the Dartmoor Pony Society (DPS) and the Duchy of Cornwall has encouraged farmers (pony keepers) to take their best moorland mares and run them with a pure-bred stallion in one of the ‘newtakes’ (enclosed areas). Resulting foals can join the DPS Supplementary Register and are eligible to compete with Pedigree ponies. After four generations, the female progeny can be registered as Pedigree.
The DPHT’s remit is to inform and educate the public and to help safeguard the future of the traditional Dartmoor pony. This includes Pedigrees, those on the Dartmoor Pony Society’s Supplementary Register and the non-registered but true-to-type ponies that we call ‘Heritage’.
Cattle, sheep and ponies have different mouths and graze in a different way. Ponies have two sets of incisors, can nibble and bite but also grind with strong molars. They thrive with a varied diet and are happy on the moor all year. They stamp on old stems of gorse to make it easier to eat and love the young shoots; they trample the bracken; nibble away at dense bramble and push into areas that other animals would not wish to go. This activity, along with dunging and constant movement, creates environments which encourage other plants to grow and provide a food source for insects.
For example, ponies graze on the ever-more-invasive Molinia (purple moor grass) which turns the landscape into a straw-coloured, dense environment that is not suitable for other grazers. They’ll eat the sweeter grass all year round but in winter/early spring, when they are having to work hard at finding nourishment, they will push in to this growth and help to keep it under control so that better quality grazing and other plants can come through.
The ponies are monitored by the farmers all the time but each autumn the herds are rounded up for inspection in the traditional annual ‘drift’ where some are selected for sale and others are returned to the moor.
Market forces, the changing needs of pony owners and an over-supply of equines, as well as financial and legislative factors, have undoubtedly had an impact on pony value. While Pedigree/Heritage ponies are now in more demand, excess numbers of some other types has led to an urgent need for more controlled breeding with a focus on quality and greater unification of the Dartmoor pony ‘brand’. Most farmers are trying to breed sensibly for the markets available and see ponies as part of the heritage of Dartmoor.
The DPHT’s priority is to add value to the ponies, so that by gaining more income, farmers are incentivised to breed quality ponies that have a purpose – either on Dartmoor or sold for private or conservation grazing homes.
‘Adding value’ includes: providing subsidised castrations and vasectomies for colts; free handling/taming; promoting temperament and adaptability throughout the media and our ‘Ponies Inspiring People’ equine assisted learning courses; grant funding pony management and welfare. At our site at Bellever near Postbridge, we offer free grazing for farmers for up to 30 ponies. This herd demonstrates the benefits of conservation grazing by helping to keep archaeological sites clear, making an impact on Molinia and opening up the land for more species to flourish and for visitors to enjoy.
We also facilitate the loan and sale of farmers’ ponies: Norfolk Wildlife Trust for example, now has over 180 Dartmoors. Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust and private sites across the UK are using Dartmoors sourced through DPHT.
The RSPB has used Dartmoor ponies to graze the steep but flower-rich fields of its South Devon coastal reserve at Labrador Bay since winter 2009/10. After a catastrophic decline, by the early 1990s Cirl Buntings were found nowhere else in the UK. At Labrador Bay numbers have increased from 3 pairs in 2008 to 30 pairs in 2019. A national Species Recovery Project has seen numbers increase to over 1000 pairs.
The RSPB believes that without the pony grazing, this special habitat would disappear under bracken and scrub and its value for Devon wildlife would be diminished. Ponies are suited to the site even in the winter because they are robust and hardy, graze a variety of plants and thrive on the sparse, steep landscape. They have been ideal where grassland is under restoration and unsuitable for other stock such as cattle or sheep. Combining year-round pony grazing with cattle in the summer, creates the varied structure favoured by Cirl Buntings and perfect conditions to provide invertebrate rich grassland for birds to find lots of prey to feed their chicks.
The DPHT is not just promoting Dartmoor ponies; our remit is to inform and educate about every aspect of Dartmoor – from history and archaeology to biodiversity and conservation - as well as encourage visitors to respect and appreciate what Dartmoor has to offer and value our heritage. We provide more free Guided Walks than any other organisation on Dartmoor.
The DPHT believes that working in partnership on Dartmoor, along with increasing public understanding, will ensure that ponies remain the very visible emblem of the spectacular home they helped to create.
Originally written by Clare Stanton
Dru Butterfield, Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust.
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