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News from the hearth


We're thrilled to share the arrival of conservation grazing - or more accurately, wood pasture creating - Dartmoor Hill Ponies, to Moor Barton Wilding.

The geldings arriving

The ponies, who are part of the The Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Ponies conservation grazing herd, will spend the winter months on the land grazing, browsing, trampling, wallowing and scenting.

First to arrive last Monday was a little 'bachelor' herd of five geldings. In the week that they have been at Moor Barton, these intrepid ponies have covered much of the 100 acres of the site into which they are fenced. The ponies' 'prehensile' upper lip is able to carefully select particular plants (rather than munching through everything) and the ponies will travel large areas to find the plants and herbs that they need. As well as contributing to the ponies' health, this selective grazing and browsing allows biodiversity to thrive.

On the move

This morning, the boys were joined by a herd of five mares. The likelihood is that one of geldings will take on the mares as his own herd (like a stallion would do in the wild). The two herds will then stay separate and move each other around the land, keeping themselves fit and pushing the impact of the ponies into the more remote areas of Moor Barton Wilding.

The mares settling in

Ponies are a key rewilding engineer. Their activites in the landscape contribute to a dynamic mosaic of ever changing habitats and benefit a multitude of species. In addition to opening up the rides and glades to create more ecologically rich edge environment, the ponies' unique grazing and browsing habits create varied height and structure in the sward. This creates habitats for, among other species, rare creatures such as the Hazel Dormouse, Marsh Fritillary Butterfly, Heckford's Pygmy Moth and the globally threatened Southern Damselfly. The ponies' nutrient rich dung provides food for many insects including pollinators and Dung Beetles.

Dartmoor Ponies, in particular, have especially adapted mouths which enable them to nibble on the prickly gorse. (The gorse, with its high oil content, makes up a signifiant proportion of the ponies' diet in the winter months.) We're hoping that our little herds will help us keep down the hillside of gorse that we cleared last year, allowing the young oaks and hazels that were being shaded out by the gorse to thrive. (We're so confident in the ponies' gorse eating abilities that we've bet Derek Gow a bottle of whisky they'll manage it!) We're also planning to encourage the ponies, with strategically placed salt licks, to crush and trample the bracken that is dominating some of the larger glades, disturbing the bracken rhizomes and allowing more diverse grasses and wildflowers to come through in the Spring.

Bracken trampling will help allow diverse grasses and wildflowers to come through

Another Springtime benefit of the ponies will be for many of Moor Barton's nesting birds. Birds such as goldfinches will use the ponies' mane and tail hair to build sturdy nests and redstarts and tree pipits will use the soft shedding winter fur to make warm and cosy nest linings!

In times in gone by, wild ponies would have played a crucial role in shaping natural habitats. It's extraordinary to think that these Dartmoor ponies carry the genes of their Tarpan ancestors whose herds who roamed Dartmoor's wild uplands 10,000 years ago. We'll keep you posted on their impact at Moor Barton - and whether we win that bottle of whisky!

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We're super excited to have had Graeme Lyons, one of the best and most experienced entomologists in rewilding movement, visiting Moor Barton Wilding this Spring and Summer.

Poplar Hawkmoth

Over a period of four months from April to July, Graeme carried out an in depth survey of 13 compartments in different habitats spread over the 120 acres of Moor Barton. The survey aims to assess the health of these habitats through their insect abundance and diversity.

Large Emerald

Graeme's last visit took place in late July and we have yet to get the final results. However, to give you an idea, we recorded 66 species in one morning in a light trap. No wonder we have the moth eating nightjars nesting! Moor Barton is also the first site Graeme has ever surveyed where he has seen both Pearl Bordered and Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary Butterflies.

Black Arches

As expected, the wetlands and the wood pasture were brimming with insect life whilst the conifer plantation and beech woodland (particularly where the trees are roughly the same age) were much quieter.

Elephant Hawkmoth

We'll share the full results of the survey here when we have them, so watch this space! :-)

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This past winter the hard-working Moor Barton volunteers have tackled an area affectionately known as 'Gorse Alley'.

Gorse is a wonderful plant, providing cover for mammals and nest sites for birds whilst the yellow flowers add a brightness at all times of the year. It has a thirst for life and will expand and expand to the exclusion of other trees and plants. It can be seen as ‘invasive’ but it is just good at what it does!

Underneath and amongst the gorse covering the hillside rising above Gorse Alley are 1000s of planted native broadleaf trees. These trees have been so shaded out by the gorse that they are unable to thrive. Plus, the denseness of the gorse has made it a hard and prickly task when trying to remove the multitude of tree guards that are a legacy from the planting, almost a decade ago. A lot of the gorse had grown leggy and tall with spindly crowns and was not providing the nesting opportunities as a shrubbier gorse bush would.

As part of a Countryside Stewardship Scheme with Natural England we were granted funding to clear back the gorse - 4 acres in all! Luckily for us the intrepid Angus cajoled, enthused and lead, by brush cutting example, over many weekends. Volunteers aged from 11 years old upwards including Angus's mum and dad helped us to complete the mammoth task of fulfilling our Stewardship obligations. Huge thank you to everyone who came and helped.


Rather than burning or flailing with a tractor we cut it by hand then created big brash piles that were heaved into place by all the wonderful helpers. These brash piles provide an element of habitat structure at Moor Barton, allowing numerous nesting opportunities for the many bird species – Blackcap, Wren, Robin and Blackbird to name a few. The piles will also provide space for mammals to rest, reptiles to bask and add an element of protection to the planted trees from the many deer that call Moor Barton their home. It seems extreme but this work will let the planted trees get away and grow taller for a few years before it grows back into a wonderful understorey that will provide more nesting habitat. In the future, Dartmoor ponies will nibble bits back and we humans can coppice it on a rotation acting as another ecosystem engineers. While working we created more open conditions, scuffing the ground with our feet as we worked. Next year the ground should be a riot of pink and purple foxgloves to compliment the yellow of the gorse and it will be fascinating to see what other plants grow up.


All the volunteers came away happy, scratched, itching from dead gorse needles, and glowing with a knowledge and satisfaction from being a participant in a rich and complex landscape.

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