The benefits of Dartmoor ponies as conservation grazers

Dartmoor ponies are among the most iconic species of any British moorland. However, their population has dramatically declined since the 1950s, raising concerns about their long-term survival. Recognizing their value as conservation grazers is becoming more urgent. Recent research highlights how Dartmoor ponies contribute significantly to conservation grazing and biodiversity.

A research project released today suggests that ponies contribute positively to conservation management on Dartmoor. They are also suitable for conservation-grazing schemes nationwide. In response to a request from Defra and Natural England (NE) three years ago, the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust (DPHT), in collaboration with researchers at the University of Plymouth, started a research project at Bellever on Dartmoor. This project gathers scientific evidence on the benefits of Dartmoor ponies in conservation grazing, creating suitable conditions for biodiversity.

Defra and NE requested these data to assist with future stewardship schemes like ELMS (Environmental Land Management System). They also aim to evaluate the contribution of ponies as part of grazing and land management solutions.

Initial Findings

At the Annual Research Lecture hosted yesterday by the Dartmoor Society, the DPHT announced these initial results. A Natural England ecologist stated, “The trial results provide good evidence of the positive impact of pony grazing on Molinia. The study, shared with Defra, will help shape the future Environmental Land Management System.”

Paul Lunt, Associate Professor of Environmental Science at Plymouth University, added, “The findings suggest that salt blocks attract ponies to targeted areas of Molinia-dominated moorland. Increased grazing and trampling by ponies reduce sward height and Molinia cover. This facilitates increased germination of Calluna seedlings and plant species diversity. Thus, Dartmoor ponies may be suitable for conservation-grazing schemes aimed at reducing Molinia and re-establishing Calluna.”

DPHT's Conservation Efforts

The DPHT has its own Higher-Level Stewardship (HLS) Agreement at Bellever & Lakehead Grazing, near Postbridge, using Dartmoor ponies for conservation grazing. In addition to the research findings, the entire Bellever site was recently appraised by its Natural England Advisor as highly successful. This led to a recommendation for an extension of its HLS Agreement.

Paul Lunt noted, “This site is interesting because we have 82 hectares of moorland grazing within a 540-hectare block of working Sitka Spruce plantation managed by Forestry England. The ponies roam throughout the open area and into the conifers. Our project encourages the ponies to graze an area dominated by coarser Molinia at Lakehead.”

Managing Molinia, an aggressive and dominant grass, presents a serious challenge. Changes in management and climate have favored Molinia, creating poor habitats and increasing wildfire risks. The study suggests that Dartmoor ponies are part of the solution to managing Molinia.

Exciting Developments

Dru Butterfield from DPHT said, “Satellite imagery shows new pony tracks through the Molinia as the ponies have changed their grazing patterns. Their impact is significant and exciting. These results could extend to ponies on heathland and uplands nationwide. Hardy ponies can be recognized as effective conservation grazers to support biodiversity.”

Paul added, “The project started in 2017 with detailed baseline vegetation data. Reports show conclusive evidence of increased pony activity's impact. In 2019/2020, we plan to remove the salt blocks and continue monitoring vegetation structure and seedling recruitment to determine if the concentrated grazing period is sufficient for sustained improvement.”

Natural England National Grazing Specialist Dave Martin and Principal Adviser Naomi Oakley designed the research project. The University and DPHT also acknowledge Malcolm Gibb's significant contributions.

For more insights into the Dartmoor ponies' role in conservation grazing, visit our Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust page.

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