This is part one of a two part blog series, on the ponies of the East Dartmoor National Nature Reserve. Regular visitors to Yarner Woods may have been fortunate enough to stumble across some of our resident Dartmoor ponies. In total, we manage a small herd of 14 individuals. Their presence in the reserve is very much to our benefit however the relationship that we have with these little ponies is not one-way. In part one, I describe how through their natural grazing practices, the ponies play a vital management role in maintaining the structure and biodiversity found in the woods today.
We take our duty as caretakers very seriously and part two looks at what we do for our ponies in return for their hard work. I also highlight some of the issues involved with keeping a herd of semi-wild Dartmoor ponies in a reserve where human interaction is inevitable, and how visitors can enjoy these ponies from afar whilst allowing them to continue doing their job undisturbed.
Dartmoor has been grazed by ponies, cattle and sheep for centuries and the continuing presence of such animals is important as they have both a heritage value and a significant role to play in conservation. Over time, such extensive grazing by livestock has shaped this wild landscape and created unique habitats for a myriad of different wildlife communities. Within the woods at East Dartmoor National Nature Reserve, ponies are used to maintain the woodland in a near natural state, with the aim being to reduce the need for human intervention by mimicking past grazing practices.
Here at Yarner Woods live two small herds of Dartmoor ponies. The woodland herd have freedom to roam over 312 acres of upland oak woodland, whilst the field herd split their time between various locations in the Bovey Valley. The field herd are also loaned out for short periods of time to partner organisations to lend a hand with conservation grazing.
Dartmoor ponies are incredibly hardy and are able to maintain good all-round body condition on low-energy forage, whilst being exposed to extreme weather conditions often encountered on the moor. Such qualities make these little ponies ideal residents of the woodlands of East Dartmoor where terrain can be hazardous, and in the winter, temperatures low and food harder to come by. Dartmoor ponies are considered a rare breed and through recognising their usefulness in conservation grazing, we can help to ensure a future for this charismatic little pony breed.
What do the ponies do for us?
Dartmoor ponies are ideally suited to the task of conservation grazing. This is because like all ponies, they are selective grazers. Within extensive systems, they create vegetation mosaics with closely cropped open areas interspersed with areas of taller, undisturbed vegetation. Despite being strongly grass-based in their preferences, Dartmoor’s are highly adaptable foragers capable of modifying their diet as conditions and habitats change. For example, the ponies within our woodlands have been known to happily consume both rowan and holly, two types of vegetation not normally available to them out on the moor. Dartmoor ponies are well-equipped with a coarse ‘moustache’ on their upper lip and a wiry beard which prevents discomfort when grazing on harsher vegetation.
By both grazing the field layer and browsing the sub-canopy, the ponies help to maintain the structural diversity seen in our woodland today. They do this through trampling dense thickets of bracken, nibbling the growing buds of unwanted saplings and maintaining open glades and rides through grazing. We also have a pony, by the name of Midnight, who has developed the habit of placing a young rowan sapling between her front legs and then walking up the length of the stem. During this process, she flattens the sapling enabling her companions to nibble off the tender young leave. This behaviour may come across as damaging, however in the long term, this prevents rowan from becoming too dominant and rivalling oak in the canopy. This also creates more open ground for fragile annual plants.
They can also have an indirect impact on the surrounding ecosystem. Certain invertebrate species benefit enormously from the removal of the shrub layer. For example the caterpillar of the pearl-bordered fritillary Boloria euphrosyne feeds off common dog-violet Viola riviniana which is unable to grow when overshadowed by bracken. As well as this, by opening up glades within the woodland, the ponies create ideal conditions for beetles. These include the oil beetles (genus: Meloe), which seem to prefer the grassy glades found in the Bovey Valley. The blue ground beetle Carabus intricatus also benefits from the increased abundance of mosses.
More generally speaking, by limiting holly growth the ponies also open up the sub-canopy allowing light to reach the trunks of the oaks, benefitting multiple species of lichens. Many invertebrates also thrive in the trail of dung left in their wake and whilst these species are valuable in their own right, they are also an important food source for both bat and bird species.
The ponies also provide a sense of enjoyment for those lucky enough to stumble across them whilst walking in the woods. They represent a significant part of the heritage of Dartmoor and though their continued presence in the woodland, serve as a reminder of the importance of grazing animals to both peoples livelihoods and the ecology of an area. If you do happen upon any of our four-legged residents while out walking on the reserve, please remember that they are semi-wild. Although certain individuals may appear friendly initially, when frightened they can quickly become nervous and flighty and are therefore best left in peace to go about fulfilling their important role in conservation.
Written by Beany Townsend, Conservation Assistant at East Dartmoor NNR