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Education, Conservation and Heritage on Dartmoor

To address fears that this iconic and popular British Native Breed could be lost from its land of origin, the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust (DPHT) was created as a Charity in 2005.

Ensuring a sustainable future for traditional pedigree or non-pedigree ponies bred on Dartmoor is critical because they retain special characteristics, being tough, hardy and resilient, gentle and adaptable; it would be a tragedy to lose the genetics and characteristics of the pony bred in its native environment.

Our priority is to ͚add value͛ to these semi-feral ponies ʹ all of which are owned by pony keepers (farmers). Our belief is that by achieving more income from ponies, farmers are incentivised to breed a sensible number of quality ponies that have a purpose, either helping to manage the landscape, or sold for private or conservation grazing homes.

͚Adding value͛ includes: providing subsidised castrations and vasectomies for colts; free handling/taming; grant funding pony management and welfare; and promoting temperament and adaptability throughout the media and via our celebrated ͚Ponies Inspiring People͛ equine assisted learning courses.

At our site at Bellever near Postbridge where we have a Higher-Level Stewardship and Educational Access Agreement with Natural England and work in partnership with Forestry England, we combine supporting pony keepers with demonstrating the benefits of equines as grazing tools. We offer free grazing and care for up to 30 farmers͛ ponies. They help to keep archaeological sites clear and open up the land for more species to flourish and for visitors to enjoy.

Cattle, sheep and ponies have different mouths and graze in a different way. Equines have two sets of incisors, can nibble and bite but also grind with strong molars. Dartmoors thrive on a varied diet and are happy on the moor all year. They stamp on old stems of gorse to make it easier to eat and love the young shoots; they trample the bracken; browse away at dense bramble and push into areas that other animals would not wish to go. TheLJ͛ll eat Molinia (Purple Moor Grass) all year but in winter/early spring, when they are having to work hard at finding nourishment, they will push in to early growth and help to keep it under control. Along with dunging and constant movement, ponies open up paths and so enable more light to then create habitats that encourage other plants to grow and provide a food source for insects.

Three years ago, working with the University of Plymouth, we began a Research Project at Bellever to gather scientific evidence to assess some of the benefits of ponies as conservation grazers in creating suitable conditions for a range of biodiversity, in particular reducing Molinia. Bellever is 82ha of moorland and heathland grazing within a 540ha block of working Sitka Spruce plantation managed by Forestry England. The sustainable management of Molinia presents a serious challenge and is a major issue for many upland areas across the UK, creating a poor habitat prone to wildfire and enabling it to outcompete other less vigorous plants. Changes in management and climate have favoured it. Our project successfully encouraged the ponies away from their favoured area of mixed vegetation (short grass and dwarf shrub heath), to targeted Molinia-dominated areas, using salt blocks. Their increased grazing and trampling activity led to a clear reduction in sward height and Molinia cover, facilitating increased germination and establishment of Heather seedlings and plant species diversity. The data were provided to DEFRA and NE to assist with the planning of future stewardship schemes such as ELMS (Environmental Land Management System).

The DPHT facilitates the loan and sale of farmers͛ ponies to both private and conservation grazing homes: Norfolk Wildlife Trust for example, now has over 180 Dartmoors. Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust and private sites across the UK are using Dartmoors sourced and given basic handling, through DPHT.

Equine conservation grazing is linked to many stunning and varied landscapes ʹ not just Dartmoor. The RSPB has used Dartmoor ponies to graze the steep but flower-rich fields of its South Devon coastal reserve at Labrador Bay since winter 2009/10, to help encourage the return of the Cirl Bunting. By the early 1990s the bird was found nowhere else in the UK but numbers increased from 3 Cirl Bunting pairs in 2008 to 30 pairs in 2019 and there are over 1000 pairs nationally.

The RSPB believes that ponies have created conditions to provide invertebrate rich grassland for birds to find lots of prey to feed their chicks. Without the pony grazing, this special habitat would disappear under bracken and scrub and its value for Devon wildlife would be diminished.

The DPHT͛s remit is to inform and educate the public; not only about the ponies and their roles on Dartmoor, but about Dartmoor͛s heritage and its importance in terms of the environment and biodiversity, with a particular emphasis now being its role to help mitigate the impacts of climate change.

At Bellever we provide more free Guided Walks than any other organisation on Dartmoor and our volunteer team carries out conservation work all year; participants access and enjoy the solace, wild open spaces, health and wellbeing benefits of this extraordinary landscape as well as an appreciation of its role within our environment and climate change.

Also promoting the Dartmoor ponLJ͛s amazing temperament and versatility, we use carefully trained Dartmoor ponies as the ͚platform for learning͛ for adults and young people of all ages with a range of life challenges, as part of our ͚Ponies Inspiring People͛ Equine Assisted Learning programmes.

The Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust is committed to making a difference, not only to the future of the ponies but also to the understanding, respect and appreciation of the general public for the very special qualities of Dartmoor that make it the spectacular place that it is today and its importance to our future.

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