Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony: DEFRA threatens Dartmoor’s Ponies

  • Contributor information: CNP

7 June 2019

Friends of the Dartmoor Pony say’s that DEFRA’s plans for agriculture threatens the very future of the iconic Dartmoor Hill Pony.

DEFRa is threatening the future of the Dartmoor Pony, It doesn’t mean to, but it does.  And now that DEFRA knows that it does (because we’ve told them) will it change?

The iconic Dartmoor Pony are hard as nails

The beautiful and iconic Dartmoor Pony. Photo credit: Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony.

Herds of free-roaming, wild pony herds are an iconic sight on the uplands of Dartmoor National Park.  Archaeological and historical evidence confirms they have roamed Dartmoor continuously since the Bronze Age (and most probably for thousands of years before – watch this space).  They have been central to the hill-farming culture of commoning since at least 900AD.  If these ponies were made of granite, they would have preservation orders slapped on them, be scheduled monuments, get financial support for maintenance, be nurtured as a museum artefact.  These herds have survived Ice Ages, invasions, civil wars, but can they survive DEFRA Agricultural and Environmental policy? 

Dartmoor’s semi-wild pony herds have evolved to thrive in this harsh climate – they have internationally-rare genetics giving them cold tolerance and the ability to hold fat.  They do not need supplementary feed and perform an essential grazing role which shapes the landscape and ecology of the moor even in the highest, harshest areas, where no sane man would put cattle and molinia needs controlling.  If we lose them, they can not be replaced by any old pony – they have inherent knowledge passed from elders in the herd on how to survive the moor and work distantly with man.

What does the future hold for the pony?

Does agricultural policy threaten the future of Dartmoor’s ponies? Photo credit: Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony

So how does DEFRA harm them?  These herds are encircled by policy doors which have been successively slammed in their face….  Here’s just a few:

Genetics:  they have internationally-recognised rare survival genetics, but because they are Semi-wild and fall outside of the Victorian concept of Breed, they are not worthy of consideration for protection by the DEFRA FAnGr genetics committee.  This means they fall outside of Native Breed At Risk payments.  The number of breeding mares has fallen to less than 1200, but as they are Semi-wild not a Breed, they are offered no support, not even by the Rare Breed Survival Trust.

Profitability: in the landscape of agri-environment schemes cutting grazing levels by 75% on Dartmoor commons, these ponies vie for a place to stand on the moor where they have stood for millennia with cattle and sheep.  Cattle and Sheep producing meat on Severely Disadvantage upland are made falsely profitable by DEFRA farm payments.  The pony is not.  This creates the mind-set is that these ponies are worthless and this view will take decades to change.

Cattle supplements:  Higher Level Stewardship schemes have included Cattle Grazing Supplements which incentivise grazing cows on Dartmoor commons.  To receive extra payment, would you take off ‘profitable’ sheep, or cull ‘worthless’ ponies?

We could go on…. And on.  And we have:  we have written a detailed report, supported by specially-commissioned third party studies. 

Ponies are a highlight of visiting Dartmoor

The handsome Dartmoor Pony is a highlight of the National Park for many visitors. Photo credit: Friends of the Dartmoor Pony.

If we are not to lose pony herds whose ancestors where dragged into Kent’s Cavern by hyena as lunch, walked this region alongside woolly mammoths and were farmed alongside cattle and sheep when man first learned to farm 4000 years so, then DEFRA must work with us to design grazing management and funding of Dartmoor which accommodates them.  But it’s not even enough to do this.  So much harm has been done, these herds now need some positive discrimination – nurturing and financial support (however unfashionable a concept this may be). The semi-wild pony herds of Dartmoor deliver Public Goods by spades – history, farming culture, contribution to tourism and Getting Outside, creating habitats for wildlife, to name but a few – and they deserve Public Payment. 

C’mon DEFRA, we’ve done the hard graft; written the report, commissioned scientific studies to provide third party evidence; now roll up your sleeves, sit down with us and together we can design a solution.

By Joss Hibbs

Friends of the Dartmoor Hill PonyTo find our more about their work click here.