The Ponies of Dartmoor

April 01, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

I recently posted a blog introducing a photography workshop and adventure around Dartmoor, courtesy of a equestrian photographer, Malcolm Snelgrove. The workshop was billed as a Discover Dartmoor weekend, and while the Clydesdales were by far the most prominent stars of  the weekend, Malcolm also took us to many locations frequented by the other famous stars of Dartmoor, the ponies.

Native Dartmoor Ponies grazingDartmoor PoniesA small herd of Dartmoor ponies showing the native colorings graze on the moors.

I admit, prior to the workshop, I'd heard about the Dartmoor Ponies but hadn't really gotten to know much about the history or reality facing them so it was great to hear some of the background behind the ponies from our knowledgeable guide. In particular, I learned about the different groups of ponies; the native ponies, the heritage ponies and the hill ponies. The heritage ponies are those that are true in type but don't have a provable pedigree.  The Dartmoor Hill ponies are those that are born on the moors but not necessarily of a purebred pedigree.  A simple way to tell the native from the non native ponies is by the color of the coats. The darker/solid color coats are typically the native ponies, whereas the piebald or skewbald (i.e white patches) coats are usually the Dartmoor hill ponies. Dartmoor Hill PonyDartmoor Hill Pony sheltering from the rainThis Dartmoor Hill pony had some excellent coloring, albeit looking at little worse for wear in the cold rains on the moors.

It's easy to spot the hill ponies, and indeed at first glance they are the more readily photographed pony. I certainly took my fair share of photographs because they do still look great to see, especially when light hits the coat and manes in the right way and they glow. On this workshop however, we headed out into the moors to track down more of the native ponies, and we had some success and were able to get up close for a good look.  As they are largely darker in color, they can be hard to spot initially amongst the gorse, but up close they have fascinating coats and expressions.

Bleak outlookThis shot captured the bleak reality facing the native ponies

Sadly, there is a plight facing the ponies on the moors lately. With rising costs and increasing red tape, coupled with the recession, the demand for, and subsequently the resale value of, the ponies has plummeted and many are being sold off by farmers and slaughtered for food. Their numbers are now falling dramatically. Around 50 years ago, it was thought there were around 25000 to 30000 ponies on the moors. 10 years ago the number was down to only 800. Estimates vary today, but are around the 1500-5000 figure. With the current trend though one does have to wonder how long the ponies will still be around on the moors, at least outside of the more individually managed portions. Without ponies there will be no natural grazing to keep the gorse in check and stop the moors from becoming wild and unmanageable, making many areas of the moors inaccessible to hikers too.

Adding to the difficulties, a few weeks before we arrived the Dartmoor National Park Authority carried out controlled burns, known as swaling, to manage the gorse. 

A matter of life and deathThis shot captured the contrast between the wet, mossy areas of the moors and the burnt, charred remains of the gorse and trees, as the native Pony looks for something to eat.

The burning helps maintain the walking trails, but also, ironically,  encourages healthy growth of the moors. This is a good thing. Living in California with a high wildfire risk every summer, we get used to seeing controlled burns and can vouch for the regrowth that occurs the following season. It does however leave a rather bleak looking terrain until the new growth takes hold, and it provided for some powerful images of the ponies grazing amongst the charred gorse and trees.

It was great to see many pregnant mares on the moors, giving hope the numbers will survive. Interestingly, because of the dwindling interest in keeping ponies by the farmers, they are actually having to try and control the breeding to avoid having too many ponies simply being slaughtered each year. Traditionally, birth control is effected by simply limiting how long stallions are left out on the moors, but recently they have begun to trial a contraceptive for the females instead. The first trial was successful, but now they are trying hard to find more areas on the moors that they can isolate to run a larger trial to monitor the results of the contraceptive. Judging by some of the mares I saw, a few may still be forgetting to take it  ;)





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