EPICENTRE - the newsletter for Exmoor Ponies in Conservation

Exmoor Ponies in Conservation Newsletter

Issue 1 Article 12


"Old meadows and pastures are wonderful places for wildlife". So starts a very good leaflet, jointly published by English Nature and the British Horse Society. It goes on to say that poor grassland management can be very damaging; that over grazing can harm sensitive wildflowers and grasses. What good advice and what rightful concern. All that is missing is any mention about the welfare of the ponies that are forced into a situation of living in over grazed conditions.

There is no doubt that ponies are good lawn-mowers for both nature part keepers and for anyone with a problem of controlling sensitive old meadows, possibly SSSIs. Ponies are less noisy than machines and are much more pleasing to look at. They could be thought of as more convenient than lawn-mowers. They require no petrol and dispose of the grass as they go along. They can leave the grass shorter that a mower. In some circumstances they can even eliminate the mechanical problem of wear and tear, by reproducing themselves.

It is easy to forget the welfare of the ponies themselves. No planned control of pasture or park, by ponies, is complete or sustainable, without careful management by man. However well the plants of the park are either protected or made conveniently visible to human visitors, provision has to be made for both the short and long term welfare of the pony. At all times it is essential that the needs of the pony are remembered and provided. After almost two years of discussion on the protocol on animal welfare, the Heads of State of Europe recognised that horses are not to classed with "agricultural products" but are individual sentient beings.

Sentient beings require food and water in sufficient quantities at all times of the year. They require protection from adverse weather conditions, both cold, wind and rain as well as excessive heat and sunshine. The particular circumstances dictate what is required and how each essential need may be met.

Ponies are capable of grazing any sward very close to the ground. They will survive on pasture after cattle or sheep would die of starvation. When the amount of grazing available is reduced they will eat almost any other plants up to reachable height. It is common in the New Forest to see the ponies eating holly trees as high as they can reach. This habit is not particular to the area, nor whispered from generation to generation, nor especially recorded in the New Forest gene code. During one winter I restricted my Exmoor ponies grazing to an area that had holly trees and gorse bushes. Soon they were browsing both and acquiring the callouses commonly seen in the corners of Forest ponies mouths. Grazing pressure can force ponies to eat growing ragwort, not normally touched while growing in the open. The result is cumulative poisoning.

One of the first noticed drawbacks to the pony as an easy lawn-mower is that it does not eat evenly over any area. Part of the grazing will be chosen as a latrine area and will not be grazed close. This occurs whether a single pony or a group are grazing. It may be seen on extensive pasture as well as in single fields. It is possible to force grazing over this area. This is less than considerate to mid and long term welfare of the pony as within the latrine area fall most of the worm eggs. If the pony is forced to eat the worm eggs it is more than likely to be permanently damaged by the resulting worm burden. In small areas of grazing, droppings should be collected from the pastures, not only for the benefit of the pony, but to protect any interesting plant species from being suddenly covered by a pile of droppings.

From the point of view of the nature park keeper, these non-grazed areas may be a trouble, as the ponies do not necessarily choose places that fit into the pathways planned for the visiting public. In Britain if patches happen to occur across public footpaths it is difficult to arrange even temporary diversions. I have seen in Holland visitors to reserves directed by the simple moving of a marker post, leaving them with cleaner and drier shoes. In Britain if patches happen to occur across public footpaths it is difficult to arrange even temporary diversions. I have seen in Holland visitors to reserves directed by the simple moving of a marker post, leaving them with some with cleaner. dryer shoes.

The main problem with live lawn-mowers, is to get the numbers right. Unfortunately plants grow at differing speeds, dictated by the season and the weather. In winter time they may not grow at all. Somehow all ponies have to be properly fed throughout the year. One approach to this problem is to start with a lot of ponies in the spring and get rid of them as growth rate declines; possibly to be left with no ponies to keep for the winter. Another is to accept that in the spring there will be surplus grass and to make this surplus into hay, to be fed in winter. A less radical solution is to plan less surplus in the spring and to buy hay to feed in the winter.

It is not good grazing management regularly to eat down any sward to less than two inches deep. If this is done, and on some reserves it may be unavoidable, almost all the wild flowers and herbs that it was planned to encourage will be lost. Continual tight grazing will also kill off the more productive grasses. The turf will be opened up and will offer ideal conditions for the introduction of less desirable weeds, including ragwort.

At the other end of the sward length scale, it is not good management to graze ponies on lush grass. This is the situation where the condition of gross obesity, often accompanied by laminitis, thrives. Laminitis is extremely painful and can cause permanent damage. Conditions that may look like a feed bonanza are less to the benefit of the ponies than a slight deficiency of easy feed. To keep a pony with laminitis on lush grazing is positive cruelty.

To run a semi-feral herd of ponies, breeding or non-breeding, permanently in a single area requires about five hectares of ground per pony. One of the characteristics that make a pony valuable in a nature park is a sufficiently nervous or disdainful nature that prevents the pony from molesting any visiting public. A pony that hangs about a car-park, waiting for Polo mints or for a nutritious sandwich, is not only not doing its job of eating the grass but can become a menace. If you happen to be a member of the public admiring, along with your young children, a handsome equine, do be careful that, when the last sandwich has been snatched by an appreciative pony, you are not rewarded for your thoughtfulness, either with a vicious bite or a display of the soles of pony's hind feet. It is debatable which would hurt the most if they are landed successfully. Either spoil a family outing, even if you escaped the casualty department of the local hospital!

Before any unbroken ponies are loosed into their permanent setting it is essential to have arranged a reliable method of regaining control of them. If they are not tempted by a suitable sandwich or other more usual horse feed baits, to accept a head collar, there must be some system that allows them to be moved into a small area from which they can be driven into some funnel system with unbreakable walls. There they can be haltered and, if necessary, wormed or otherwise treated. Such simple arrangements are just as essential in a small SSSI meadow with one uncatchable pony, as in a nature park with many. My own ponies, once in a small confined space, hold up their heads with a look to say that they were all very well behaved to start with, if only I had asked them nicely! It is expensive, dangerous as well as frustrating if ponies take a route of natural escape through a wire fence. I have been to a very organised European Nature Park with a very good herd of Exmoor ponies that was ever increasing because there was no provision, at the time, to control the ponies.

Clear objectives and strong management are required in any marriage of grazing and ponies. One must not be considered without the other. Very many marriages are successful. Marriage, however, can lead to distress to one party and on to divorce. Is there perhaps an argument in favour of the mechanical mower? Should it fail, at least you can kick it, if you have any strength left!

by Peter Dean

Peter is an ex-chairman of the Exmoor Pony Society and has been breeding ponies, Herd14, Cumbria, since 1958.