EPICENTRE - the newsletter for Exmoor Ponies in Conservation

Exmoor Ponies in Conservation Newsletter

Issue 1 Article 5


The national Trust currently has eleven Dartmoors and three Shetland ponies on its property at Hembury Woods near Buckfastleigh. The site is a mixture of sessile oak woodland and areas of acid grassland/heath pasture. It has been designated a SSSI by English Nature and has an Iron Age Hillfort within which is a Norman Motte and Baily castle which is a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

The areas of grassland had always historically been grazed with ponies by the tenant farmer, but in recent years Galway cattle and sheep had been used. Too many cattle resulted in excessive poaching which, although a certain amount is beneficial, too much results in loss of condition of the site and ragwort, dock and bracken take over out competing the more delicate and more desirable herbs. Sheep graze very tightly and the sward was becoming too even with the resultant loss of diversity of flora.

Therefore, in 1993 the National Trust decided to reintroduce pony grazing as ponies will only eat flowers and heather if they are short of grass. They will also take young gorse which needs controlling and they adequately poach the ground in winter. So, four wild Dartmoor ponies were brought from the Dartmoor Pony Society and this year seven more ponies have been acquired on long loan, three from a mare and foal sanctuary and four from a farmer on Dartmoor all of which are more or less wild.

Animal welfare is an important issue and we do everything we can to ensure they are in the best of health. They are checked regularly and a pony coral and crush has just been constructed on site to worm and check them at close quarters twice a year. This could prove interesting and I just hope we emerge unscathed with the crush still standing at the end of the operation. The water supply is also checked to make sure it is adequate, the ragwort and hemlock water dropwort are controlled and signs are put up to tell people not to approach or try to feed the ponies. However, there was an incident recently where a lady tried to get on one of the ponies, and of course she ended up on the ground with a broken wrist. Some members of the public seem to assume signs are for others and that they don't apply to them for some reason.

The site is divided into several paddocks and the ponies are moved around about every six weeks. This involves a lot of shouting , running and waving of arms and an awful lot of red glowing faces by the end of it. Luckily most of the time the ponies seem to remember where they're going, but this doesn't stop the rising sense of panic as they set off at a gallop up the road with everyone trying to keep up hoping against hope that all the barricades that have been set up are adequate and that the person at the next bend hasn't chosen this minute to disappear behind a bush.

Little did I know when I got the job as a Seasonal then Warden with the National Trust that would become stock handler, would-be vet, animal welfare officer, water engineer and worried pony owner all in one. But, as I have discovered, this is what you do become when it is decided that ponies are the best animals to graze for conservation management purposes and I must say I enjoy every minute.

By Lucy Morton, Warden S.E. Dartmoor