Dartmoor ponies are among the most iconic species of any British moorland. But a dramatic decline in population since the 1950s has led to widespread concern about their long-term survival prospects and an urgent requirement to recognise their value as conservation grazers.
A research project – the initial findings of which are released today (Saturday) – suggests the ponies not only make a positive contribution to conservation management on Dartmoor, but are also a suitable option for conservation grazing throughout the country.
The research project – coordinated by the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust (DPHT) with researchers at the University of Plymouth – was designed to gather scientific evidence to assess the benefits of ponies as conservation grazers.
It was launched in 2017 in response to requests from Defra and Natural England to assist with the planning of future stewardship schemes such as ELMS (Environmental Land Management System) and to help evaluate the potential contribution of ponies as part of grazing and land management across England.
Specifically, it hoped to find ways of reducing the dominance of purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea) and encouraging the re-establishment of more traditional dwarf shrubs such as common heather (Calluna vulgaris).
The findings, revealed at the Annual Research Lecture hosted by the Dartmoor Society, showed that salt blocks can be used to attract ponies to targeted areas of Molinia-dominated moorland, where other management strategies are not sustainable. It also found measurable increases in the growth of other plant species.
The results have been welcomed by Natural England, with an ecologist for the organisation saying they “provide good evidence of the positive impact of pony grazing on Molinia”. They added that the study had been shared with Defra and will form part of the body of evidence that will help to shape the future Environmental Land Management System.