Who’s been eating my holly?

At the East Dartmoor Woods and Heaths National Nature Reserve we have a lively herd of 14 Dartmoor ponies that we heavily rely on to help us with the management of the land. Their names are Magpie, Star, Big Nose, Pignut, Tanzy, Curlew, Swift, Merlin, Karen, Kate Bush, Marmaduke, Monty, Bert and Midnight. This lovely bunch live on the Reserve; 6 within Yarner Wood and the other 8 currently in our fields. They’ve recently returned from their annual Dawlish winter holiday, where they have been aiding Teignbridge District Council and Devon Wildlife Trust with scrub clearance.

Bekah and Bryan chewing things over with the ponies (photo credit Freya Womersley)


We really couldn’t take care of the Reserve as well as we do without them. They’re incredibly important in maintaining the diversity of species that are found throughout Yarner by munching on holly, rowan, elm, grasses and more. This creates the beautiful open woodland that we see today, bursting with life from its towering canopy, to the rich array of flora species able to thrive on the woodland floor because of the ponies’ work at clearing thick shrubbery. They enjoy it too – free to roam the site munching on whatever takes their fancy!

Over the winter, the woodland ponies have often been seen chomping on holly trees. This is great for us; it plays a really crucial role in keeping the holly down so we don’t have to do it ourselves! They help maintain the perfect balance, which means keeping some holly for its unique properties, which extend beyond the bright red berries to sustain our abundant bird life. For example, it’s a breeding ground for a species of fly that will only breed on holly leaves (Phytomyza ilicis, in case you’re interested) and is a great spot for the beautiful Holly Blue butterfly in Spring. Looking around the woodland today, we spotted several holly trees that have been recently browsed by the ponies, who seem to really enjoy nibbling the bark off. If they remove the bark around the whole trunk (known as ring-barking it) the tree will likely die, giving other plants an opportunity to grow, and creating great habitat for all the wonderful deadwood-dependent invertebrates that Yarner Wood is known for.

Fresh evidence of pony browsing on holly

The holly is quite clever, and has developed a strategy fend off ponies and anyone else that might want snack on it: It’s prickly. And sometimes quite painfully so! It doesn’t bother to make the higher leaves overly spiky, however, and amazingly, these are both holly leaves that we found today, from the same tree. The one on the left doesn’t need to defend the tree from browsers, as it’s just too high up.

Two holly leaves from the same tree!

Up on the heath, graziers with common rights release their ponies out on Trendlebere, where similarly they work at maintaining the heathland’s unique character, grazing on gorse, heathers and grasses to deter succession and ensure the heathland doesn’t progress into woodland. Myself and Freya have been able to get involved in the care of these ponies and learn more about their role in natural management on Reserves such as the East Dartmoor NNR.

Bekah, who is has been working as a trainee here for the last 14 months, has experience and an interest in animal husbandry. She has been enjoying assisting the Reserve Warden, Bryan Thorne, with looking after our pony herd. She’s ensured their safety, checking on them regularly (which has included searching the woodlands endlessly with a radio tracker!), getting them used to handling with head collars for the farrier and potential vet visits, giving them health checks and transporting them between sites. Bekah says, “It’s such a pleasure to work with these beautiful, sensitive creatures and although they are at the Reserve for a purpose, it’s one they enjoy, and they can have an amazing quality of life!”


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