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!