The Ponies of East Dartmoor’s Woods – Part Two

In The Ponies of East Dartmoor’s Woods – Part One I talked about how important our herd of 14 Dartmoor ponies is in maintaining the structure and biodiversity found in the woods today. In this blog I look at what we do for our ponies, in return for all 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.

What do we do, in return for our ponies’ hard work?

As their caretakers, we take the responsibility for the welfare of our ponies very seriously. We have a duty to our animals to ensure; that they have adequate grazing, access to fresh water and they maintain a favourable body condition all year round. The easiest way to assess the health of each pony is through regular visual checks. This is easier said than done, for a large four legged mammal they are surprisingly sneaky! In order to overcome this problem, a pony in each herd wears a radio-tracker, attached to a loose fitting collar. This takes out some, but not all, of the difficulty in finding them and allows us to keep a close eye on them wherever they may end up in East Dartmoor’s Woods.

One of our grey geldings Monty doing some well-needed holly management! Dartmoor ponies have a thick, hairy moustache to protect their delicate upper lip from scratches whilst eating prickly vegetation.

Sometimes just a visual inspection is not enough and there are times when more contact is required with each pony. Particularly during the winter, it is important for us to regularly run our hands over each pony to ensure that their fluffy coats are not concealing any hidden ailments or poor body condition. We train the ponies to allow interaction with certain members of staff, the aim being to limit the stress caused by such handling.

In addition to this, the ponies are visited every 6 months by our ever patient farrier, Mel, to have their feet trimmed. This is not an experience that either party looks forward to.  In order to try and make this visit incident free, we aim to have each pony in a position where a member of staff can lift all four of its hooves. This is not always easy, as each pony has its own unique personality and some can be flightier than others. As a result, this training requires hours of patient work and has been carried out by both our reserve warden and various trainees over the years. In the wild this type of intervention is not necessary, however as our ponies lead a slightly comfier lifestyle than those out on the moor, any excess energy acquired from the food they consume is put into growth. They also do not have the chance to wear down their feet by migrating across the moor, which would naturally wear down the bony material from which their hooves are made.

Swift, Merlin, Curlew and Hoggard from our woodland herd, waiting patiently in the management corral, for their turn visiting our long-suffering farrier. Each pony has his or her feet trimmed every 6 months, to avoid problems with overgrown hooves.

As the ponies’ caretakers, we have to ensure that we oversee all aspects of their lives and this responsibility can include preventing the supplementary feeding of our animals by well-meaning members of the public.  In recent years, we have loaned four of our Dartmoor ponies to Dawlish Warren NNR on the Exe estuary, to graze their coastal dune grassland. The ponies spend the winter months on the reserve, when visitor numbers at their lowest, but any animal grazing on this popular reserve will inevitably come into contact with people.  During their most recent holiday by the sea, rangers noticed visitors arriving with bags of carrots and cabbage and regularly removed food from the pony enclosure. Visitors are understandably interested by the arrival of ponies on the reserve each year, however for these ponies, that have evolved to live off the poor quality grazing found up on the moors, this can discourage them from eating the vegetation that would benefit habitat management.  Overfeeding can also lead to health issues, such as obesity and laminitis.

So if you are out and about in any of our reserves, please enjoy the presence of our ponies from a distance whilst leaving them in peace to carry out their important conservation role.  In the long run, this will help them fulfil their role within the reserves, thus ensuring their future with us.

Written by Beany Townsend, Conservation Assistant

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