Low level grazing is an important feature of Sutton Park that maintains the variety of habitats seen within the site. A variety of animals have been used in the past, most recently being cattle from local graziers. The number of cattle is now declining and a new initiative is to graze Exmoors in a specific area of the park as a pilot project. If it is successful in the first year, the herd will be expanded to graze the north of Sutton Park (around 500 acres).
The ponies are enclosed within an 80 acre enclosure. Fencing is 1.5 m high, 3 strand post and wire fencing with stock netting beneath, and a secondary fence installed so that ponies that may escape, through for example the fence being cut can easily be rounded up into enclosures.
On July 9th 1999, the first 5 fillies arrived from Exmoor to form the nucleus of a herd of 8. The project has attracted a great deal of media and press coverage. The grazing of the park has also seen increased ecological interest since the publication of the paper by J. Box and H. Bramwell on 'Long term changes in grazing in Sutton Park N.N.R.' in British Wildlife (December 1998).
The area grazed consists of heath and acid grassland and an integral part of the scheme is to monitor and quantify the ecological benefits, carried out jointly by English Nature and the Ranger Service. This analysis is on a before and after basis, recording transects of percentage coverage by different plant species, sward height, and the presence / spread of certain key species such as marsh violet and lousewort. The area grazed has a number of distinct communities. The upper area is dominated by wavy hair grass and ling heather, these being some of the drier areas, and the lower wetter areas consist mainly of purple moor grass, cross-leaved heath and sphagnum moss.
In terms of public reaction to the ponies, the majority are very positive with a steady stream of people making their way to see the ponies. There have been a small number of negative comments falling into 2 groups. People (often who own horses/ponies/donkeys) and think that the free grazing of ponies on such terrain is no good as the grass is of poor quality, the ground is uneven and boggy in places. These people tend to equate Exmoor ponies to their own horses and it is very difficult to convince them otherwise. There are also an isolated couple of complaints on the visual impact of the fencing in such a natural setting. This is a legitimate concern, however they are usually convinced once a thorough explanation is given.
I myself see this scheme as a major step forward in realising our conservation objectives of the site.
For further information/enquiries contact
Dr Stefan Bodnar C/O Sutton Park NNR Park Rd., Sutton Coldfield B74 2YT (e-mail)