EPICENTRE - the newsletter for Exmoor Ponies in Conservation

Exmoor Ponies in Conservation Newsletter

Issue 1 Article 4

NAGS, FALSE OAT GRASS AND DUNGING AREAS

Why is it that horses and ponies often avoid areas of False Oat grass Arrhenatherum elatius? This is a common grass on a variety of dry or damp soils throughout the UK. Sheep and cattle regularly take it. Although it varies in growth habitat from situation to situation, and can be decidedly vigorous, in general it is highly sensitive to grazing. I have even known it disappear under winter sheep regimes. There seems no obvious rhyme or reason to the phenomenon, for I have seen situations wherein False Oat grass is readily taken by equines, including thoroughbreds, and seen other situation where rough grass pockets dominated by other grass species are ignored, notably Cocksfoot Dactylis glomerata.

Recently I have visited two chalk grassland paddocks where Exmoors have avoided areas of False Oat grass. At Denbies Hillside, Dorking, Surrey, a group of Exmoors have ignored a large pocket of mixed False Oat and Yorkshire Fog grass Holcus lanatus, whilst the surrounding grassland has been grazed to rabbit lawn standard. At Memorial Down, St Margaret's Bay, Kent, four Exmoors have done an excellent job on what was rank Tor grass Brachypodium pinnatum but have ignored large areas of False oat grass. There is now a juxtaposition of undergrazing and overgrazing, for the poor Tor grass areas now look horse sick! Had the site been grazed by sheep the opposite would have occurred.

In neither site are these ignored pockets being used as obvious dunging areas. Indeed, at denbies the nags have scarcely dunged at all in the rough pockets but have liberally and randomly strewn their favoured short grass with deposits. At Memorial down some areas of False oat grass are being used as dunging areas, but then so are some areas of Tor grass, and there are dung piles scattered around generally. Indeed I am unhappy with the concept of dunging areas and believe that there is no single pattern and quite often no pattern (or set practice) at all. Rarely have I seen obvious dunging areas, and then mainly with isolated stallions and geldings. It may well be that some nags are habitual about dunging but others are not (probably due to excessive greed), and in group situations individual traits get masked. This, coupled with the fact that rough pockets benefit invertebrates, begs the question of do nature conservationists worry too much about dunging areas, which are regularly flagged up as a concern when grazing by equines is being discussed.

Enlightenment on these subjects would be welcome.

by Matthew Oates

Matthew Oates

National Trust, 33 Sheep Street Cirencester GL7 IRQ 01285 651818