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Wildlife conservation of local downland and heathland

 Exmoor ponies

ponyThe Trust is custodian of five herds of 'wild' (semi-feral) Exmoor ponies, currently numbering 77 in total. They are available to landowners to graze degraded areas of land to help restore or improve the habitat structure and composition on which biodiversity depends.

The Exmoor Pony is the oldest of the native breeds of British ponies and is thought to be the closest pure descendant of the ponies that inhabited Britain 100,000 years ago – long before the arrival of man. They have hardly changed since those prehistoric times when they lived alongside mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers and are one of the purest examples of equines in existence. This means that they all look alike and have unique features that have helped them to survive for thousands of years (see box, right).

 

An old breed for a new situation

All the Exmoor’s natural characteristics are adapted to surviving hostile weather and being able to live on poor forage, thus making them ideal for conservation grazing. They are able to graze out all year round and maintain good body condition without supplementary feeding and with little help from man. They thrive on the low quality keep of chalk grassland and heathland, tackling the invasive coarse grasses (tor grass and purple moor grass respectively) that threaten biodiversity and with good, sharp (upper and lower) teeth, ponies are able to graze very close to the ground. They are highly 'selective' grazers which helps to create sward structure and they will tackle gorse, rush, brambles and even bracken, and occasionally browse on other young shrubs and trees. Ponies also trample bracken and help to open up the sward with their small, sharp hooves.

Intelligent, inquisitive and able to fend for themselves Exmoor ponies are popular with site visitors and conservation managers alike.

"A hardy native breed of pony, the Exmoor appears to have inherent capability and intelligence to do well on conservation sites".      

(Grazing Animals Project, 2009).

 

Pony welfare

We at SPGCT take animal welfare very seriously. We follow the Five Freedoms guidelines and act in accordance with the Animal Welfare Act 2006. 

Each herd of ponies is checked every day, either by one of our trained volunteer ‘Lookers’ or the Grazing Co-ordinator, who is also on 24hr call. In addition we also have equine experts on-hand who carry out periodic checks on the condition of the ponies and specialist veterinary care is obtained when required.

We keep only mature, non-breeding herds which negates the extra nutritional pressures and associated risks of keeping breeding mares.

We want everyone to be able to enjoy our Exmoor ponies. They are part of our shared national cultural heritage and a rare native breed that needs support. However, for the health and safety of both visitors and ponies there are a few recommendations that we ask you to adhere to when visiting a site where ponies are present:


Do’s and don’ts:

  • Follow the The Countryside Code. Please remember to shut gates firmly behind you when entering and exiting a site.
  • Keep dogs under close control. Ponies can and do defend themselves against dogs.
  • Don’t feed the ponies. There are several important reasons why we ask that you do not feed our unhandled/semi-feral Exmoor ponies:
    • Ponies can very quickly come to expect titbits from humans and may start to behave aggressively in pursuit of them.
    • Anticipation of food can lead to ponies hanging around car parks or gateways which can be a nuisance and a security risk.
    • They don’t need the food! These ponies have been especially chosen for their ability to thrive on rough forage and we only put a number on site that we know the land can support. Sudden changes to diet or the ‘wrong’ foods can, in fact, be detrimental to their health.
    • An important part of their conservation work on these valuable habitats is to arrive at a net loss of organic matter - in other words, slightly less comes out than goes in. If food is brought on-site from outside, this important nutrient balance is compromised.

 

To see where the ponies are currently grazing, click here »

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Physical characteristics


Height ranges from 11.2 to 13.2 hands with the majority being approximately 12.1 hands. They are always brown, bay or dun in colour with distinctive pale markings and they blend in very well against their natural background of heather, grass and bracken. Their distinctive pale coloured nose is called ‘mealy’ because it looks as though they have dipped their noses in a bucket of oatmeal. They have very endearing eyes called “toad eyes" to describe the prominent flesh around the eye which provides a defence against harsh weather.

Their ears are short to keep out the cold, wind and rain and they have large nostrils and a long face to warm the winter air. The jaw is deep to give room for their efficient biting and chewing teeth enabling them to eat gorse and other tough plants.

In winter they grow a coat in two layers which provides them, in effect, with thermal underwear and a raincoat. So little heat is lost through this that when snow settles on the pony’s back it doesn’t melt, just has to be shaken off. Their thick long tail has short hairs at the top forming a water chute so that rain runs off quickly. They have very hard, neat feet that cope well with rough ground.

 

A rare breed

By the end of World War II there were only around 50 registered Exmoor ponies remaining,  making them rarer than the Giant Panda is today. This dramatic demise was caused by a combination of owners away at war, ponies being used as target practice by troops and as a food source during rationing. Thanks to the efforts of the Exmoor Pony Society and some dedicated individuals numbers are now much improved with around 1,500–2,000 Exmoor ponies in existence across the world. However the breed is still classed as ‘endangered’ by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust on their Annual Watchlist, meaning there are only between 300 and 500 breeding mares registered. The fate of the Exmoor pony remains in the balance. 

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