Exmoor Ponies in Conservation Newsletter

Issue 2 Article 6

Exmoor Ponies, English Nature and Attingham Park

English Nature, the statutory body for nature conservation in England manages some 150 National Nature Reserves (NNRs) across the country. On many of these reserves, particularly heathlands and grasslands, grazing forms an important component of site management. As agricultural practices change, getting the right level and right type of grazing is becoming more difficult and increasingly conservation organisations are turning to stock ownership to achieve grazing objectives.

At Aqualate Mere in Staffordshire English Nature manages a large multi-habitat NNR which includes over 150 acres of low lying wet grassland dominated by coarse grasses, sedges and rushes. Potentially these areas are important wildlife habitats, supporting a wide range of flowering plants, insects and birds, particularly ground nesting waders e.g. curlew, lapwing, snipe and redshank. To maintain this wildlife interest it is essential that these areas are lightly grazed, preferably during the summer months, to prevent the vegetation becoming dominated by one or two vigorous species which shade out other plants and prevent ground nesting birds from spotting predators.

In the five years that English Nature has been involved with the site, the pastures have never been sufficiently grazed for nature conservation purposes, mainly because of the refusal of continental breeds of beef cattle to eat the coarser species of grasses and rushes. English Nature therefore had to look beyond its grazing licensees to achieve the required results. Acquisition of traditional British breeds of cattle (Longhorns, Galloways etc) was considered but rejected because of purchase and management costs, sheep were unsuitable for this type of land so we began to take a look at native ponies.

It was apparent from the outset that Exmoors were the obvious breed (or race ) of pony to go for but how would they fare on lowland grassland? Although they were being successfully used for the grazing of several wildlife sites, most were upland or heathland sites and none were similar in situation to Aqualate. Finally in 1996, conversations with Val Sherwin who was already running a herd of Exmoors in Staffordshire and sight of the grazing undertaken by the Gaitbarrows herd convinced us that Exmoors were worth a try at Aqualate.

Our nucleus herd of two 16 year old mares, a two year old filly and a filly foal was purchased during the 1996/7 winter. Our mares both produced filly foals in the spring so for the last six months we have been running a herd of six ponies which we use to supplement grazing by the cattle herd.. The initial results have been extremely encouraging - as graziers the ponies have been excellent, grazing more of the coarse sward in one month than the cattle had grazed in five years. They have been extremely easy to manage requiring little more than regular checking.

Handling has proved to be the major challenge - the ponies reluctance to move away from familiar territory has necessitated the construction of a handling pen (see appendix i for plan) in both of our grazing blocks between which we transport the ponies by trailer. The soft peaty ground on which our ponies spend much of their time has insufficiently worn hooves and we have had to have the herd's feet trimmed once so far - fortunately our local farrier has the agility of a wild west rodeo rider! Our only mishap has been one mare stuck in a peaty ditch - we think she assumed it had the stony bottom of an Exmoor river, hopefully 700 metres of new fencing will prevent a reoccurrence.

Overall we feel that the Exmoors have been a great success and will hopefully be introducing a stallion to increase our herd size in the near future. We are also hopeful of establishing a second herd on another Midlands NNR in the coming year - watch this space.

by Tim Coleshaw Site Manager, English Nature Attingham Park, Shrewsbury SY4 4TW

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English Nature, the statutory body for nature conservation in England manages some 150 National Nature Reserves (NNRs) across the country. On many of these reserves, particularly heathlands and grasslands, grazing forms an important component of site management.