Ponies on Dartmoor – what future?

Laura White
Laura White

By Laura White and Stuart Clarke

If you ask people what they think of when they think about Dartmoor, the word ‘ponies’ will be right up there. But what is the future of the ponies on Dartmoor?

Locals may take for granted the sight of mares and foals grazing on the moor, but the money that surely must be contributed to our local economy by tourists who flock to the moor to see the wild landscape and the ponies should add value to the animals that bring it in.

Next week sees the annual Dartmoor Pony Sale in Chagford. There were other pony sales in Princetown and Tavistock, but those sales stopped years ago.

The numbers of ponies being sold has reduced and the numbers of ponies on the moor are going down after a series of market and policy changes have fuelled their decline.

The figure now stands around 1,000; 60 years ago there were 10,000 ponies on Dartmoor, according to the secretary of the Dartmoor Pony Society.

By 1968 there were 6,500 ponies, recorded after the re-registration of commons grazing rights.

With rising uncertainty over farming subsidies and support, the number of farmers interested in continuing and being a commoner is going down, with younger farmers not interested in following their forefathers in looking after the Dartmoor ponies.

It is thought that there were no ponies in Britain until 3,500BC, until man sailed them across the channel during the Bronze Age.

The Dartmoor Hill Pony has rare genes; the genetics are found in the Dartmoor Hill Pony and the semi-wild ponies in Wales. It is thought that the genetic traits in the breed allow them to be tolerant to the cold and to thrive and survive the harsh uplands of Dartmoor.

In the 1950s and 60s the export trade was good with shiploads of mares being sent to Canada for breeding children’s ponies as there were no native ponies in the Americas. Many were sent to Denmark, Holland and Belgium for food. In 1999 the live export of animals was banned, and although this had a positive impact on animal welfare, the meat trade and the export for riding ponies came to an end. As a result, the male colt foals which failed to sell at market were taken back to the farm and shot, and female foals sold for as little as two guineas (£2.20). Only the coloured pretty ponies sold, for riding or their hides.

The Dartmoor Hill Pony is one of the few remaining native breeds in Europe. They have grazed on Dartmoor for the last 4,000 years, and have been used in tin mining, as pack ponies, on postal rounds, transporting prisoners at Dartmoor Prison and in the quarrying of Dartmoor granite which was used to build some of our great buildings of state.

The ponies worked down the mines in the dark for seven years, they were then brought back to the surface to retire. The last pony to leave the tin mines and retire was in 1965 – it was taken back to Corndon Farm, near Ponsworthy. It is said that smugglers used black ponies to carry their booty across the moor.

The fate of the Dartmoor Hill Pony is now in the hands of the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) whose treatment of them places their survival in the balance, depending on whether certain proposals are met under the proposed Agriculture Bill. Whereas the Dartmoor Pony (cross-bred Hill Pony and Arab) has managed to secure the title of rare breed, and therefore certain funding, the original Hill Pony has been left out in the cold (where it is happy to survive, unlike its cousins). Hill farmers on Dartmoor keeping semi-wild pony herds on the commons have no specific access to financial support, yet they are central to the history and culture of Dartmoor. Ponies help shape the landscape and biodiversity in the way they graze alongside cattle and sheep.

They contribute hugely to tourism at a time when DEFRA has told national parks to increase tourism by 10%. The submission to the House of Commons states that the semi-wild Dartmoor Hill Pony herds on the moor have been negatively impacted by DEFRA’s agri-environment schemes.

When DEFRA created subsidies for upland grazing, it appears that no one thought about the ponies. DEFRA gives subsidies for using livestock to improve the moor, which are paid by the hectare. These payments are made for cattle and sheep, but the subsides for ponies are much less. The consequence is that cattle and sheep are profitable, ponies are not.

The Farm Business Unit of Duchy College calculated that Hill Ponies were running at an average loss of £78 per pony, so if there are a thousand or so ponies on Dartmoor the cost to keep that thousand has been calculated at £93,600 per year plus someone to administer, which is almost nothing in the DEFRA budget.

If funding to this amount could be found, it will mean that farmers are no longer keeping ponies on Dartmoor at a financial loss. Dartmoor National Park Authority, whose logo is a Dartmoor Pony, this year will get government funding to the tune of £3,825,865. This will be added to with things like ‘Donate for Dartmoor’ and sales in the three visitor centres which this year is expected to amount to £200,000.

This year the national park has also spent £104,000 on their car parks, yet the symbol of Dartmoor National Park Authority, the Dartmoor Pony, continues to struggle. Arguably, without the Dartmoor Pony there would be no need for car parks or visitor centres as there would be much fewer
visitors. Kevin Vogan who runs The Tors Inn at Belstone said: “People phone the pub and ask if the ponies are in the village, and if they are people arrive to see them and stay for a drink or lunch. For us they are vital part of village and Dartmoor life.”

Charlotte Faulkner of the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association has stated that the ponies on Dartmoor are an agricultural animal, sold for food.

They are directly impacted by agricultural policy and therefore must be considered in the review of the Agricultural Bill. Charlotte believes that to give the animals a value and protect them from extinction, the public needs to move away from seeing them as pets and see them more as livestock. Pony meat was for sale at most of the country shows over the summer and the staff on the stalls reported a good trade. Peter Parsons, landlord of the Warren House Inn high on Dartmoor for the past 25 years said: “Ask any visiting tourist to describe Dartmoor and the word ‘ponies’ will be said within the first three sentences.”

The Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony have produced 3,000 postcards for members of the public to post to Tamara Finkelstein, permanent secretary of DEFRA, to “pledge support for the submission made to DEFRA under the Agricultural Bill Review asking that the semi-wild ponies of Dartmoor are considered a Public Good attracting Public Payment.”

1,500 postcards have been sent, and so far, not a single reply has been received. The Moorlander has reprinted the postcard which readers can cut out and post to DEFRA, giving your support and asking them to save the ponies on Dartmoor.

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