Exmoor Ponies in Conservation Newsletter

Issue 2 Article 16

Studying Exmoors at Denbies

My first encounter with John Cranham, National Trust Warden at Denbies Hillside in Surrey, was in the summer of 1996 as an Environmental Science student come wannabe conservationist. I spent three months as a volunteer at Denbies providing amusement for John, the other wardens and the occasional Exmoor as I attempted various day to day tasks.

(photo by Alex Williams)

I decided that John would be a good person to suggest a topic for my forthcoming dissertation. Having thought about it John suggested it would be useful to determine what the Exmoors' diet consisted of as they grazed their way around the site. It was later he told me I would need to apply the technique of faecal analysis!

Two years later I am pleased to report that my dissertation is now complete and a brief description of the methods used and the results are given below.

Having assessed the composition of vegetation on offer to the ponies I then collected samples of each plant species in the study area. Epidermal fragments were taken from each sample and mounted onto microscope slides. The slides were then photographed to compile an epidermal cell key. The faecal samples were processed in the lab to remove unwanted debris. Microscope slides were then prepared from the faecal samples. Frequency counts were calculated from the vegetation available and the faecal samples. The data was analysed to determine the nature of what had passed through the ponies.

It was found that the abundance of species within the sward correlated very highly with the content of the diet. The main species consumed were Sheep's Fescue, Red Fescue and Brachypodium spp., which were abundant within the vegetation available. Herbaceous plants were not significantly apparent within the faecal samples which could be due to two reasons. Firstly, the ponies may not be eating significant amounts of them. Secondly, they may not survive the digestion process. One of the scrub species, Whitebeam, was shown to be preferentially grazed.

Although the results of the research are not conclusive they do demonstrate that it is possible to determine the role of Exmoor ponies in grassland management utilising the technique of faecal analysis. Unfortunately the process is time consuming and requires access to laboratory facilities. However, I am keen to pursue this line of research and would like to hear from anyone who can suggest possible sources of funding and/or study sites.

I would very much like to thank everyone at Denbies, the National Trust and of course the Exmoors for giving me the opportunity to gain valuable practical conservation experience and an interesting topic for my dissertation. Should anyone be interested in further information please do not hesitate to contact me.

by Alex Williams 17 Haverfield Road, London E3 5BH