Cattle grazing has been intermittent dependent on the crops our grazier grew on his adjacent field. We have used Hebridean sheep at times when we thought they might do least damage to the scabious. We have mown the moor grass (Molinia) in summer and autumn and burnt it in spring. But none of this ever seemed to achieve quite what we wanted. The butterfly also decided it could no longer live under the protection of an NNR and died out in 1992.
However, we do not give up easily and whilst it survives in Cumbria we shall endeavour to make a home suitable for its reintroduction. About two years ago we heard that the butterfly was doing remarkably well on a pony grazed site and more to the point an Exmoor Pony site. The following year we saw the Exmoors at Aqualate Mere NNR on similar rough land to ours and heard Tim Coleshaw tell us what hardy beasts they were.
More digging around led us to Margaret and Tim Mackintosh in Silverdale, so in for a penny in for a pound I reached for the phone. Inevitably a call to an enthusiast gets an enthusiastic response and I was led by the halter to Peter Dean at Brampton, a man of considerable stature in the world of Exmoor Ponies. In early December I phoned him, gave a short description of the habitat and our problem and he was on site in no time. He liked what he saw and by the end of the visit I was confident we could take on four of his mares, although he felt the 20 acre Molina, heather and rush would need a few more to really get to grips with the site. So why not take five more yearlings, four colts and a filly. I was left under no illusion about what we were taking on and realised that what went on must sooner or later be recaptured and taken off, indeed if we kept the five youngsters the four colts would need to loose their colthood in the autumn. Never one to let an opportunity go I took them on and we had the option to let them go when the mares came off.
Within days Peter was back with the five yearlings and the way they left the box I wondered if we would ever see them again. Over the next few days they were barely approachable except for one of the young colts which almost walked towards me one day. A few days later the four mares arrived and one quite soon showed some interest.
Knowing they were wild animals I ventured to ask Peter what might attract them, polo mints was the reply. Duly armed with a packet, one day in January I ventured quietly towards them. To my delight the friendly mare ventured closer and closer until her curiosity, and no doubt the smell of something sweet, got the better of her and she took a mint, then another and responded by throwing her head up and curling her lips back in a gesture that said to me I liked that. From thereon she came every time followed shortly by another of the mares, much more tentatively and somewhat fended off by the first. The five youngsters remained aloof but at least they did not run a mile and one even showed some interest. Getting one or two easily handled became important to me because I could soon see the possibilities for using them on other sites. However the most important aspect of the exercise was the grazing. After a month it was clear they were covering the whole site, initially favouring the areas dominated by wavy hair grass and the other 'green' grasses that grew on the better drained soils. The Molina was as always quite dead and seemed to offer little. However, when he saw the site Peter had rummaged around in it to reveal small strands of green vegetation and was confident they would find something in it. Sure enough, as the greener areas were grazed off, they began to forage harder. What eating machines they turned out to be, constantly eating and almost everything going in, except rush!, rarely did I find them standing around and the amount of dung they left was testimony to the volume of vegetation going through. By the end of March they had cleared a large area and favourite areas were emerging, I was especially interested to see them standing almost belly deep in the water where the rushes were growing and clearly finding plenty to eat.
Margaret and Tim maintained contact to see how things were progressing and suggested putting out feelers for someone to help bringing them to hand and eventually halter. Within days I had a call from Carol Wilson, whom coincidentally I had met a couple of years earlier when I had called on her to advise on management of a field they owned. Carol was quite taken by the ponies and offered to come a few time a week to get them in hand. She has been remarkably successful and has them quiet and confident in human company and believes that she will have one or two to a halter by the autumn. In March, Margaret and Tim came to visit and were impressed by both the extent of the grazing, how effective it had been and even more so when our friendly mare came to say hello followed by the rest of the tribe.
The next big decision was facing us in mid-June when to take the mares off. how to catch them and should we keep the youngsters. The last decision was the easiest. The potential was obvious, the had done very well and were settling down nicely. How to catch them was more of a problem. If they were to be a roving herd having fixed pens was not much use, we would need mobile pens. I used Tim's web page and was delighted to find two designs, both fixed timber structures, but at least I had a layout design. I discussed the options with both Peter and Margaret and decided to look for steel, mobile cattle pens. Peters principal concern was the problem of panicky ponies getting their legs between the metal bars. Timber rails can be easily smashed to release a badly trapped leg, metal will not break and the risk of a broken leg is high. To address this problem I proposed lining the crush area with 8ft x 4ft shutter ply. I first looked at a New Zealand pen in a lightweight alloy but they proved very expensive. The next option was steel, much heavier but also much cheaper. Two of our Agricultural Merchants offered similar designs and layouts. With little to choose between them on price I opted for AEI, but either would have fitted the bill. The pen design has plenty of gates to facilitate shedding and separating animals or releasing them in an emergency. We installed the pens well in advance of the day and several days earlier had opened the gate which allowed them into the small field where the pens stood.
By now it was early July and the four mares were to come off on the 7th. I marshalled a small team and at the appointed hour we arrived. Such was our good fortune that they were already in the small field near the pen. The gate was smartly closed but now they had no hesitation coming to us and two were rewarded with a few pieces of apple. Peter arrived shortly after, weighed up the situation, adjusted the pens and we set to work. Shelagh, my wife and I again attracted the mare with apple and steadily lured her towards the pens, the other followed but then began to suspect something as Peter led the rest of the team quietly and gently behind them. To our immense relief and good fortune they did not break through the line but turned and ran straight into the pens. We could hardly believe our good luck, although I am sure the confidence building we and Carol had patiently conducted made a significant contribution. The pen arrangement was ideal and we were able to separate the four mares and release the five youngster. The whole job took 35 minutes, a slice of luck and a calm quiet approach had done the trick. The metal pens worked well although it was clear that the complete length of the race must be lined with shutter ply to prevent legs being trapped between rails, in total four more sheets. Peter was delighted with exercise and has promised to help with the castration of the four colts which is scheduled for early autumn.
The next step is to get at least one youngsters to a halter, they seem to have forgiven us their ordeal and already one is taking apple and carrot. Carol decided to keep away and indeed was on holiday but we hope they will soon respond to her charms.
They have not been wormed as yet a problem that will need to be addressed sometime soon and another reason to get them to a bucket to administer granules. The only cause for concern was a lame mare but within four days she was okay.
We are most impressed at the quantity they eat, the structure of the vegetation they have created and the fact that they hardly seem to touch the scabious. Although it may be sometime before we see the full effect. We intend to keep them at Fingland for a while yet but will also bring some cattle onto the site to keep on top of the summer growth. We have laid on mains water mainly for the cattle but also to ensure that there is water available should the summer become dry. The only slightly worrying trend is the increase in rush in some areas, and we may need to cut it back to induce both ponies and cattle to eat the new shoots.
We are well and truly hooked on these animals, they require minimal attention and time and are a delight to befriend, yet they remain slightly aloof and their own masters and they seem to be creating the habitat we seek.