Exmoor Ponies in Conservation

An 'Exmoor Ponies in Conservation' project

Exmoor Ponies and their role in conservation

The Exmoor pony is special without doubt. Firstly, unlike many other breeds it is a 'race' of pony that has evolved naturally over thousands of years with minimal interference by man. Life in the moorland herds for many thousands of years has resulted in a pony eminently well designed for survival in often the harshest of conditions. They have evolved in balance with their environment. Recent studies have shown how the present day Exmoor Pony through unique bone structures in the jaw and leg, compares almost identical to fossils of Britain's wild pony of 130,000 years ago. So here we have in the modern day Exmoor, a living, breathing blueprint of a pony of great antiquity.

The Exmoor Pony Society and its members are working hard to ensure the conservation of the pony. Members who own the free-living herds on Exmoor and the Cumbrian Fells (Brampton) have a vital role. It is the rigours of moorland life which ensure that natural selection maintains the characteristics necessary for survival and provides a wild reservoir into which breeders of ponies in domestic circumstances can dip. However this reservoir is in fact only a pool, with only one hundred and fifty ponies living under the rules of Nature. More sub-populations and the establishment of some new herds living in an 'econatural' way are needed desperately.

Lily, the first Gait Barrows filly born in 1996

The environment maintains the pony in its original state, but this is not a one way system, the ponies also play an important role in conserving the environment. The open habitats of Britain which many countryside agencies are struggling to maintain, are not truly natural the sense that the grazing animals over centuries helped to create them. Remove the grazing and nature waits with a variety of undesirable plants ready to move in and change the landscape. The use of the right type of animals in the right numbers can be very beneficial. This is not to be confused with the occurrence of overgrazed, ragwort infested, poached pony paddocks, which has led to a pony grazing earning an undeserved reputation. Conservationists realise that horses and ponies in the correct numbers can be highly beneficial grazing animals especially on limestone, coastal grasslands and heaths. This is particularly the case with regard to our own native breeds. A study recently conducted by the National Trust at Cirencester found that native breeds are extremely effective grazing and browsing animals. The study found that the Exmoors were the best breed with regard to controlling coarse grasses and scrub, were not worried by dogs and did not have any anti-social tendencies such as causing a nuisance in car-parks!.

Understanding the key role the ponies play in maintaining a healthy sward on Exmoor itself, has led to the use of the ponies in other locations. In Cornwall, English Nature, is using Exmoors and Shetlands on the Lizard, where they are helping to conserve a type of heather unique to that area. The Corporation of London use Exmoors together with other rare-breeds, in the reclamation of 540 acres of woodland pasture in Buckinghamshire. The National Trust grazes the ponies on the steep coastal heath areas of the West Coast Estate, and in greater numbers on the Purbecks in Dorset. The areas of grassland on the Purbecks are home to a very rare plant, the Early Spider Orchid, which can only grow in a relatively short turf. The good point about the Exmoor Pony is that it will eat gorse and scrub as well as the coarse grasses which crowd out the orchids. The results so far are most encouraging and the numbers of orchids are increasing.

Far from being a helpless endangered species, Exmoors are fulfilling a useful role in the 1990s, working hard in partnership with conservationists to ensure their own survival. They have all the necessary credentials for the job developed as a result of centuries of experience of living in harmony with their environment. They are a part of our heritage that needs our support and nurture not as museum pieces tucked away on Exmoor, but rather as diligent conservationists in action.