Exmoor Ponies in Conservation Newsletter

Issue 2 Article 5

The Field of Dreams

In the beginning there was a little light grazing here and there with three wide eyed and wary Exmoor ponies (see issue 1). Before we knew it, there were a dozen on the payroll with grazing engagements the length and breadth of Silverdale. As with all the best obsessions, it just insinuated itself into our lives and took over.

The wild eyed and wary were, as you may recall, Elfin, Merlin and Peregrine. Hot from the Penrith sale ring, they served their time as apprentice conservation grazers: in the winter, on the Gait Barrows reserve which gave its name to the herd. Their summers were spent on Crag Bank, a wetland site a few miles away which is managed by English Nature.

They learned ‘on the job’, by grazing alongside Tot, our 12 year old Dartmoor gelding. They also had a lot of individual attention, as outlined in Margaret’s Handling Hints (see above). Eventually they graduated with flying mane and were ready for employment in the wider world.

The National Trust gave them their second big break. They got a spring and autumn contract on Jack Scout as bramble browsers and bracken beaters. They did good. The National Trust warden, Alan Fergusen was so pleased, he gave them an autumn engagement grazing far-flung glades in Eaves Wood. The ‘wood’ had once been parkland and is in the process of being reclaimed. The few glades that had been opened up needed to be grazed. The steeply sloping and narrow woodland paths meant that no other grazer could have got to the site, let alone got to work. Last September, Peregrine and his minder plodded through the trees and took up residence for a couple of months. They did good again. They’ve been offered other odd jobs too. They did false oat grass and hemp agrimony on a friend’s fields, recently reclaimed from the pigs and destined for soil association approval; they did common rush on a wetland meadow and they did nettle, thistle and scrub to help reclaim a lakeside site. They even became an exhibit at a nearby farm visitors centre, albeit briefly.

These postgraduate adventures further reinforced the versatility and value of these ponies and earlier this year they attracted the attention of the conservation-grazing headhunters. Merlin and Elfin travelled to Maidstone to work for the West Kent Wildlife Trust.

Peregrine passed his Exmoor Pony Society stallion exam and extended his contract with the Gait Barrows herd. Our part of the deal required us to acquire more female company to keep him fully employed. Lily was our home made filly and had Perry’s undivided attention until we were offered three more fillies as they became too much for their local owners; enter Rerrick (14/8), Trewick (14/15) and Thirlspot (14/13).

It's very gratifying when the ponies are in such demand. It offers hope that the breed will survive into the next millennium. On the down side, if such it can be called, Gaitbarrows Exmoor Ponies have become a recruitment agency and delivery service, supplying conservation volunteers on the hoof. We respond to someone else's conservation management objectives. How nice it would be if we could establish our own!

And then along came the 'field of dreams'. In the middle of Silverdale, sad and neglected over many years, there was an 18 acre area already designated a Biological Heritage Site.

We'd driven past it on the way to work for many years and made several half hearted efforts to find out to whom it belonged. A chance encounter with a local farmer gave us the lead we needed and as a result we are about to take up a 10 year countryside stewardship on Myers Allotment or maybe Gaskell Lots, depending on who you talk to. We have created our own management plan, using our own ponies and are looking forward to setting them to work to help restore it to its former glory.

The site is part of a limestone pavement protection area and was once mainly limestone grassland. It is now advancing scrub and retreating glades with a ragwort infestation that has to be seen to be believed. The presence of numerous field ant hills in combination with blue moor grass and many mature juniper bushes indicates that somewhere underneath all the scrub and between the ragwort is ancient unimproved pasture.

A couple of ponies have been grazing the site since April. The presence of the deadly weed brought forth the inevitable sharp intakes of breath when they arrived. We were confident that Exmoors don't do ragwort, unless of course they knocked it down and had the opportunity to eat the wilted variety. We paid careful attention to how it all went and, fortunately, it went as expected. There was a few months worth of grass on the site and whilst they consumed it, they left the yellow peril alone. All the while we were pulling and bagging to try to prevent the ragwort seeding. We had the help of the Countryside Management team and a gang of their volunteers spent a morning clearing a huge area. In total we estimate that we've taken more than a tonne to the tip, some of it ‘packed’ by one of the ponies as far as the trailer. There are now no ponies on the site to encourage the grass to fight back, but of course we have all next year's ragwort rosettes covering the ground and regrouping for 1999.

A significant part of the management plan concerns a small outpost of High Brown fritillary butterflies. The site possesses all the ingredients the butterfly needs to prosper and several specimens have been spotted.

The Cumbria High Brown Action Group has been kind enough to help. It is arguably ironic that by helping to conserve an endangered butterfly, an endangered pony might contribute to its own salvation.

As to why the name the ‘field of dreams’, there are definitely no ghostly baseball players about to arrive. There is reputed to be a ley line running through it, though. The name is down to the ponies. One morning we took a walk to see how they were doing and found the two who were on duty lying down in a secluded glade. One was fast asleep, obviously dreaming, whinnying and twitching, with rapid eye movements. The other one appeared to be on lookout duty. I've seen this behaviour in dogs, but never in ponies.

Despite what the ponies appear to think about it, many local residents believe that it may be a field of nightmares. Local historians tell us that the field appears to have claimed the lives of at least 4 ponies and donkeys and possibly several other grazing animals during the past 20 years. Animals grazing the site have just died! There is no evidence as to why they have died and as we look forward to the next ten years we hope that the Exmoors know best. It might be the ragwort, or it might be the number of yew trees or perhaps the bracken. (The ponies have been browsing bracken throughout their stay and with no obvious ill effects. Like ragwort, they must know bracken is supposed to be bad for them. I've not seen them eating it on other sites. Does anyone reading this have any experience of this phenomenon? Please get in touch if you have.)

Whatever it was, we hope that with careful management and the Exmoor's innate good sense, we will be able to discourage them from eating what is not good for them. Ponies under stress, with insufficient grass, might be tempted to resort to browsing other less appropriate vegetation. We don’t intend to let that happen. After our first few months it’s, so far so good. We hope to be able to report upon the further adventures of the Gait Barrows herd on this field of dreams in the next episode.

Tim Mackintosh