Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust project for conservation of Dartmoor ponies

In a demonstration of commitment and cooperation to help safeguard the future of all ponies on Dartmoor, the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust (DPHT) has brought together Natural England, Dartmoor Zoo and students from Plymouth University to undertake a research project that will study the benefits of ponies as conservation grazers on Dartmoor.

At a recent Pony Action Group meeting (a gathering of all major pony interest groups on Dartmoor, including statutory bodies the Dartmoor National Park, the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council and Natural England), it was agreed that a suitable research project would assist with ensuring recognition of the ponies’ benefit to the biodiversity of Dartmoor. As the DPHT had already initiated the development of such a project, it has been able to gather funding and resources quickly to progress a joint initiative to start this September. DPHT will be the lead funder for a project that will be specified within strict, scientific criteria and with independent monitoring, to be delivered by a team of research undergraduates and postgraduates from Plymouth University. The team will be led by Adam Cook, Head of the Dartmoor Institute of Animal Science (DIAS), the research and conservation arm of Dartmoor Zoo, supported by Natural England.

Whilst there is anecdotal evidence and some research about the benefits and impact of pony grazing on a variety of habitats, it is believed that no-one has collated the existing evidence in a single place and then reviewed and analysed it.

Says Judy Fawcett, Chairman of the DPHT: “We have always striven to ‘add value’ to the ponies through our support to pony keepers, handling of youngstock and helping to find good, permanent homes for ponies at a fair price. That means a ‘win, win’ for breeder and buyer and ensures recognition of the benefits of choosing a Dartmoor pony – either for conservation grazing or domestic use. Through this evidence gathering and potentially new research to scope the importance of pony grazing on moorland habitat management we hope to demonstrate their benefit to the management of the landscape, which can only add value to the Dartmoor pony – both real, financial value but also recognition and appreciation value.”

Judy continued: “Dartmoor farmers have seen the benefits of grazing ponies on the Moor for hundreds of years, and we all recognise their importance to tourism and the beauty and nature of Dartmoor. Scientific evidence should make all the difference to their value to the Moor, to hill farming and to bodies such as Natural England. A joint project like this has been a long term dream of the DPHT’s; we are delighted to have brought all these bodies together in this our 10th anniversary year.”

Natural England has always supported the use of ponies in appropriate environments, as effective tools for land management. This week NE’s Chief Executive, James Cross, made a special visit to Devon to meet with DPHT representatives and pony keepers to confirm its commitment to the project. Says Naomi Oakley, Principal Specialist with Natural England, who will be the primary NE representative on the project: “Natural England is pleased to be part of this exciting project which has the potential to show the importance of pony grazing on Dartmoor and which can then be used across England to support the role of ponies and positive habitat management.’

Adam Cook of DIAS says: “Properly understanding the role grazing plays on this landscape is critical in assessing management techniques that may affect all biodiversity in the area. This study in particular provides a fantastic framework towards scientifically assessing the important part the pony plays in managing the environment. We at the Dartmoor Institute of Animal Science are excited to be conducting this research in collaboration with these passionate groups.”