What Future for Ponies on Dartmoor?

5th October 2013.

Some 70 persons gathered in the Jubilee Hall, Chagford, and were welcomed by Tom Greeves as Chairman. 

Robyn Petrie-Ritchie began by speaking on the History & Ecology of Ponies on Dartmoor. Born and bred on Dartmoor, she has a degree in Equine Science, and her partner, Steve Alford, is the sixth generation of that family to keep ponies on Dartmoor. She herself is conducting ongoing research, making behavioural observations on three groups of ponies: a) a group from which the stallion has been removed; b) a group with a vasectomised stallion; c) a group where mares have been given contraceptives.

She told us of evidence for ponies on Shaugh Moor in about 1600 BC (their hoofprints were found in an excavated ditch) and of historical records including the Bishop of Crediton’s will in 1008, which mentions ponies, unbroken ponies at Cornwood in 1086, and a pony worth two shillings stolen at Huntingdon in 1479. In the 15th century horses with foals, mares, bay horses and castrated horses are all mentioned as strays. In 1535 anyone breeding a mare under 13 hands, or keeping an entire male under 14 hands with a breeding mare, was liable to a fine of 40 shillings.

At the peak of the coal-mining industry some 70,000 pit ponies were in use. The introduction of polo ponies in 1869 directed breeding in a new way. The National Pony Society was formed in 1893 and the Dartmoor Pony Society in 1925.

In 2007 the laws regarding the transport of ponies changed, and the situation on Dartmoor is precarious. A farmer said to her, ‘Why would I take on ponies just to shoot them each year? I certainly wouldn’t keep sheep just to feed zoo animals.’

Today, tensions are rising, and there is no management plan for ponies which is enforced and regulated. The southern damselfly has been saved by the grazing of ponies. Fritillary butterflies and the bog hoverfly depend on a symbiotic relationship with ponies. Robyn emphasised how much we risked losing if ponies disappeared from Dartmoor – different species and the environment are mutually dependent, affecting each other. Besides the leers (grazing areas) established over generations, and the knowledge of pony keepers, we could lose the genetic pool which ponies represent, which is irreplaceable. The moorland pony needs to breathe its native moorland air – ‘when he no longer needs to paddle across marshland he will cease to be a moorland pony’.

John Shears, as an independent Chagford farmer, spoke on The Pony Keeper’s 50- year Tale.  Both sides of his family had livelihoods as trawlermen, but they had diversified into hill farming and, more specifically, pony keeping over the years. John first had a pony at the age of seven. In 1953 at Lustleigh they used Dartmoor ponies to pull timber from the Wray valley and took poles to the timber yard.

Many years ago he bought three colts for five guineas each. Henry Scott had told him that in the old days it was possible to buy three ponies for a bottle of Scotch.

Eventually John bought a place in Chagford with grazing rights for 22 units (1 pony = 1 unit). John was involved in the pony drifts and remembers once drifting 450 ponies off Riddon Ridge. As time went by passports were introduced and various legislation made everything to do with ponies a lot more complicated and expensive.

John spoke from the heart and said there must be a future for the Dartmoor pony as a grazing ‘implement’ on the moor. He felt there are too many factions on Dartmoor not talking to each other. Natural England gives farmers pots of money to divide amongst each common.  He pointed out that the majority of the money is going to non-graziers for doing nothing. Why should people be given money for doing nothing?

Gerald Quinn enquired whether, in John’s experience, he had seen Dartmoor ponies regularly eating bracken. John Shears said no, because if they continually eat bracken it would break down their system due to its poisonous content. Instead the ponies will trample on the bracken and destroy it that way.

Jenny Greenway asked whether the decrease of stock numbers had contributed to the increase of bracken, gorse and general undesirable vegetation. John replied that he believed that this was most certainly the case and that the Dartmoor ponies are potentially the most important management tool that Natural England has because of all the wonderful work that they can do, but unfortunately they don’t really understand the moor and the processes and goals that farmers are trying to achieve.

Edmund Marriage commented that in the year 2000 Natural England considered undergrazing to be as serious a problem as overgrazing.  He felt the policies of the Labour government in conjunction with the RSPB, and the introduction of Natural England, had attempted to rid the uplands of sheep, cattle and ponies. He felt we should revert to the best traditional management practices as swiftly as possible.

John said that under the previous Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA) Scheme the stocking rates were reduced and then, with the HLS Higher Level Stewardship, they wanted them increased threefold. He said our forefathers ate horsemeat and pony meat, and we could too. At the time of the horsemeat scandal, people didn’t actually complain about the eating of the horsemeat, only the fact that the labelling was incorrect.

Tom Greeves asked about the export of ponies. John recalled that the export of Dartmoor ponies had been handled by John Burdon and John Jeffreys, and the peak activity was around 1975. These days everyone wants full traceability and with it comes a very large amount of paperwork. At Chagford Market the cost of a pony with a passport and a chip and all the correct paperwork comes to around £35. So that amount has to be found even before any profit is made on the animal.

Fairfax Luxmoore asked if John had considered cross- breeding the Dartmoor ponies with a larger animal such as Ardenne horses as they are very large and muscular. John replied that the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 decrees that ponies should be no more than 12.2 hands. He added that in 1988 he believed that the real Dartmoor ponies were hardy enough to survive a Dartmoor winter, but wasn’t confident that once you started cross-breeding they would be.

Kath Anderson commented that cross-breeding can be successful and, in her experience, crossbreds certainly are hardy enough. People don’t want the ponies that are too small and cross- breeding should be encouraged.

Marion Saunders said that that she sees many Dartmoor ponies going through Chagford Sale. She went on to say that it is the Shetland pony crosses that do particularly well and certainly survive well on the harsh high moor.

Retired auctioneer Timothy Garratt presented An Auctioneer’s Tale, which is such an important historical record that we present it in full:

I could regale you with many instances of tears and laughter that I have experienced, during my 40-year association with the annual autumn drifts and pony fair, like the time, in the old market behind the Globe Hotel, Chagford, when the day was so wet that all the numbers washed off the ponies, not only once but twice, before the sale end; we still only misplaced one pony out of well over 300 in the yard. Or the time when a new buyer gave a real fillip to the trade and then passed £200 for his purchases in dud £20 notes; we were told that they were only discovered because a shortage of bank tellers in the Chagford bank meant that they had had to import one from London.

Or I could tell you about the enormous fun and camaraderie that was enjoyed by everyone who attended the old style fairs; of how, even then, prices were not so high that some of the pony owners could not go to the Globe after the sale to dispose of the entirety of their sale proceeds in liquid form by pouring it down their throat.

I could tell you about a time of especially low prices when a pretty piebald mare and foal came into the ring and were competed for on the one hand by a pony rescue centre and on the other hand by a private individual who wanted to save the couple from ‘a fate worse than death’; in the end placing something around £150 in the pocket of the fortunate vendor.

I could tell you, as the auctioneer, of having to compete with the art of the professional Irish horse dealer, of having to control the formation of ‘buying rings’, and of having to prevent the private sale of ponies before and after the sale so as to avoid paying auctioneers commission.

I could even tell you the dangers of dealing with semi-wild animals, that are so dangerous that they can easily break your leg, and about free rides in helicopters.

However, none of that is relevant to today’s matter in hand, ‘What Future for Ponies on Dartmoor?’ So I am not going to give you, today, a talk of tales from the auctioneer’s rostrum; the subject is too important for that.

So let us trace a bit of history of the auction sales to see if it gives us a sight into the future.

The origins of Chagford’s October pony fair are uncertain but from records and narratives we know that, in some form or another, they go back to at least to the 12th century. One presumes that the traditional pony drifts that preceded these fairs must have been conducted in much the same way as they are today; with the exception that there would have been infinitely more ponies to collect, and that the collecting would not have been done by quad bike!

Chris Chapman has photographed many fine scenes of the pony drifts in the late 20th century, but in my view, none more evocative of the romance of the occasion than Cyril Abel, on horseback, pipe in mouth whilst at full speed, rounding up ponies on Moortown Farm, Whitchurch, in 1978, just as in days gone by, centuries before.

Originally, trading of stock would have been conducted by way of private bargain between buyer and seller. However, during the 19th century, the cry-auction became popular as a way of encouraging competitive trade. Most of today’s well known auction firms, around the UK, were founded sometime during that century. I think the first cry-auctions in Chagford were probably conducted by Arthur Coe, in the latter part of that century, forerunner of Coe and Amery who subsequently amalgamated with Rendells of Newton Abbot, founded back in 1816.

The auction, of course, relies on a significant excess of demand over supply, in order to create the competition needed for success. But extracts that I found online from the Devon Record Office record that even as long ago as 1909 ‘income from Chagford’s October Fair was falling off’, suggesting that even then there began to be difficulty in placing all the ponies. In order to generate competition in the market for any product (or livestock) there has to be an end-use.

Previously, after ponies ceased to be needed for pack carrying work, this work was, for all but for the very best sorts, principally for hauling coal wagons from the coal face. This in itself must have been a pretty horrific experience for the ponies, because, once down there, they could never be brought up again into the light and fresh air (or at least not unless they kept their eyes covered).

But it was, in economic terms, an end-use for them, sufficient to induce a competitive trade. Even this use declined during the early 20th century, with the advent of powered transport, and had ceased soon after the end of Second World War. What was then left for the ponies to do? 

At the time, running through the then three auction outlets and five autumn sales, there must have been around 2,000 foals at least, probably more. I am not sure of the numbers, but I am told that,  at that time, there were still thought to be around 10,000 mares running the moor, which is a good deal less than the 30,000 alleged to have once been up there,  but a lot more than the maybe 1,500 or so that are there today. Question: what to do with all these ponies? After all, there is a limit to the number needed annually for children’s’ riding ponies in such a sparsely populated area of the country!  

The most obvious answer for an annually sustainable trade is the dog meat tin. Regrettably, such, trade was limited, because there were only three abattoirs licensed to kill horses in the south of England (nowadays there is only one – Potters of Bristol); so even that trade lacked the necessary element of competition to keep prices at a viable level.

I, personally, became fully in tune with the romance of the pony drifts, well before I ever arrived in Chagford in the mid-1970s. Coming from the very different agricultural conditions of the south-east of England, much of the work that I came to was of a very different nature from that to which I was accustomed. But the pony drifts seemed familiar; as a boy, one of my favourite reading books was the well- known children’s’ book about the life of an Exmoor pony, Moorland Mousie, by Golden Gorse (aka Muriel Wace). This book, if you are not familiar with it, contains a very evocative description of a moorland pony drift, (Cyril Abel, in the Chris Chapman photograph, might have been an illustration from that book!), and I have been hooked on the romance of it ever since. It would therefore be true to say that the drift sales of Dartmoor have always been special to me in a way that other, more mundane, aspects of a rural surveyor and auctioneer’s job have not been. To that end, I have been willing to put far more energy, time and money into trying to preserve the future of the drift sales, and the semi-feral existence of the Dartmoor-bred pony, than could possibly be justified economically.

The earliest visible record of pony sales that I have been able to unearth in Rendell’s office is from 1963. We had 297 ponies forward, with 292 actually being sold. Overall, the average price was £16.40, although many were sold at around 5-10 guineas. Average prices are, of course, affected significantly by the proportion of larger (older) animals forward. Interestingly enough, in those days, a yearling made very significantly more money than a foal, and therefore made the keeping of ponies to a more mature age, financially attractive. Today there is so little difference that the rearing of such animals to maturity is wholly unattractive financially, as is evidenced by the results from the recent Chagford September sale of older and halter-broken ponies, where many failed to find a buyer.

Two years later, in 1965, 344 ponies were sold out of an entry forward of 351 and prices showed an average of £19.75; (as you can see, hardly any remaining unsold); but reading the sale book in detail showed that there was a larger proportion of yearlings that year, hence the higher average.  Most interestingly however, is how these prices compared with those for mainstream livestock. At that time, these average prices per head for ponies were roughly 25 – 30% of the average prices for store cattle going through the market at that time of year. On that basis, ponies look an economic proposition even at a cost of only around £20.

By 1975, when I first started selling, trade had fallen significantly, along with the number of buyers attending the market. Most of the ponies were sold to the three licensed horse slaughterers, in Taunton, Sturminster Newton and, for the larger and older stock, Bristol, all mainly for dog meat.

Average prices overall in the sale had dropped to less than £10 and the comparison with the cattle trade to only 6%. Clearly, even in those days, the economics of keeping ponies, and indeed of auctioning ponies, was very doubtful. Trade fluctuated to the extent that, in the early 1980s, we were able to achieve an average price per head of £30, although this was still only around 8% of the average cattle price whilst, by the end of the 1990s prices had reverted to an all-time low of only £10 average throughout the sale in 1997, and the period of crisis, with almost 50% failing to find any buyer at all, and ‘4 for £1’ (fortunately not at Chagford though) became the signature theme of that unhappy era.

Clearly, if ponies, the traditional emblem of Dartmoor, were to remain on the moor at all, something drastic had to be done, and Charlotte Faulkner ‘rode to the rescue’.

The revival actually began shortly after the closure of the Ashburton sale on the grounds of economics. Auctioneers’ commission had dropped so low there, that it did not even pay the bill for washing out that market after the sale.

Fortunately the then new Chagford Market, being unpaved, was not affected by the same constraint, but it still had to be run largely on volunteer labour, even to break-even.

After the closure of Ashburton, the auctioneers at Chagford and Tavistock decided that working together to try to revive the trade was the only solution. We started slowly, at first just bringing in a buyer’s premium in order to at least help our own income in order to keep the pony sales alive.

At Chagford we also, initially, limited the number of entries to 100 head and insisted that every pony had to be catalogued. This was followed by a series of measures intended to get people more interested in the sale and, hopefully, encourage more people to actually buy. And it worked!

At the same time, the auctioneers, now working as a team, and with the co-operation of the Commoners, were able to bring in a minimum price below which ponies would not be sold; any that failed to reach that price would have to be returned to the farm of origin and dealt with as best the farmer could. All these measures had the effect of improving the average quality of the entries to the sale, and thus the average price.

One of the big problems that the auctioneers had was that, because of the poor returns, there was no money for publicity, except the usual notices in the local paper. So, at the same time, we had the good fortune to have the doughty Charlotte join the local community, and she took it upon herself to organise the pony keepers into a significant ‘fighting force’, with a voice in the industry. This included the pony keepers themselves (through her) arranging publicity all over the country,      and abroad, about the pony sales in order to help build up a private demand. That worked too and, just after the turn of the 21st century, we had the founding of the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association.

This, in my view, was the biggest single influence on the revival of the pony trade to something that represented a proper return for the pony keepers (and incidentally the auctioneers). It encouraged many additional buyers, who came from the Midlands, the North-East of England, East Anglia, the far South-East, Scotland and, most significantly, Ireland. Prices rose spectacularly, at a stroke (one or two of the very best fillies even reaching the dizzy heights of 300 guineas or more), and it appeared to all the interested parties that the corner for the ponies on the moor had been turned for good; their future looked assured.

A BBC Spotlight report in 2004 describes the change: ‘This year’s Dartmoor pony auctions have attracted many Irish dealers, as the price of horses in Ireland has soared. Dealers are buying them for riding’. A claim in the same report from some animal welfare charities that animals were being shipped abroad for slaughter was roundly refuted as dealers explained that, at £60 per head or more, there was nothing in it for them in the slaughter trade. In fact, live transport for slaughter abroad was almost always a myth, because of the Minimum Value rule for export equines, strangely now revoked by government in the interests of European integration and free trade.

Soon after the new and vigorous trade dawned, the Government stepped in (or it may have been Europe, I don’t know) and, for the first time, the trade in ponies became regulated.

First the introduction of passports; a team of stakeholders, including not only the pony keepers (through the DHPA) but also the Commoners, the auctioneers, the pony welfare organisations and the RSPCA all spent many hours in Government offices in London, as well as on home ground, attempting to devise a scheme for passports that would not be too adverse to the pony trade.

However, despite our producing a detailed scheme that would have served the purposes of the regulation and been good for the ponies, the Government officers rejected this in favour of their own (Government always knows best!!!). This resulted, overnight, in the cost of every pony at the auction sales being increased by £10 (the cost of obtaining the passport) and, unsurprisingly depressed the trade. The only way this cost could be avoided would be for pony owners to take their ponies off the moor straight to slaughter, which of course they were reluctant to do.

It is ironic that, in the end, this is exactly what is now happening because this, and the even more draconian transport regulations that I am about to describe, have destroyed any sort of trade in ponies that the industry stakeholders had spent so much time, money and effort in building up.

The next blow was the new European livestock transport regulations, enacted in 2007, which were, like a lot of European Union legislation, a brilliant idea badly executed. Coming in just as the global economic recession was about to bite, this measure was the death knell for any meaningful competitive trade for the young ponies coming off the moor each year.

Designed (for equines) to prevent the widespread animal abuse of transporting large working horses by road from the East European countries such as Poland in tightly crammed large transporters, without rest food or water, the whole way across Europe to Italy, to end up in salami sausages, it was rolled out across Europe as a ‘one size fits all policy’.

The unique local pony trade had been built up by the need to transport our ponies all over England and as far as Stranraer in Scotland and thence to Northern Ireland (still part of the UK but obviously a lot shorter than the journey from Poland to Italy). This was done humanely with proper water, food stops and overnight rests, but did require ponies to be transported in large numbers on the vehicles, to make the journeys economic (the value of the loads was not great, of course, at least not as high as, say, the same load of cattle).

Our local small ponies, especially the foals, prefer to be bunched together when in a potentially stressful situation, but the new rules preventing more than four ponies to be transported in one compartment (and only in single pens when crossing the water) were not only bad for the little ponies on welfare grounds, but effectively destroyed any possibility that our nationwide trade could continue (on economic grounds).

We are therefore now reduced to selling to local buyers, small in number for obvious reasons, and each only wanting one, two or three at most, or to the domestic slaughter trade. There is no one else to buy them. Is it any wonder that the main outlet now for our local native pony is as big cat food for zoos?

Having said that, what is so morally reprehensible about breeding ponies for just this purpose? The public like visiting zoos, especially to see the big cats; the big cats have to be fed; they eat fresh meat; if not ponies, then what?

I can envisage a situation where the breeding of ponies for zoo meat becomes socially acceptable, where zoos are able to compete with each other to buy the meat for their big cats, and, lo and behold, a competitive trade is created. Pony lovers may describe that view as callous; I prefer to think that it just realism.

We have reached a position that I was espousing twenty years ago – that welfare organisations should mount a publicity campaign with the slogan ‘Eat horse meat, it’s good for the ponies!’. In short, it is my view that, without a purpose in life our local ponies can only have a purpose in death. Without an economic purpose in life there is therefore no trade to be made in the sale of moorland ponies. Without a trade there will be no traditional drift sales; without the sales many existing pony keepers will, reluctantly, be forced to abandon their keeping of ponies; without ponies the ecology of the moor as we know it will be damaged, possibly to the extent of destroying the ability for members of the public to access large areas.

Thus, if the ponies are to remain on the moor, to fulfil an ecological function, but without intrinsic sale value for the producers, they will have to come out of the hands of private breeders, and be managed by the various conservation agencies of government.

These bodies, with no experience of the age old traditions and ancient wisdom of pony keeping,      will do whatever they have to, to keep the number of ponies that they wish,  in the condition that they wish, and all at the expense of the public purse.

The pony trade represented by Dartmoor, Exmoor and the New Forest is unique within the UK.


Marion Saunders then spoke on Observing the Welfare of Ponies. Using fascinating images, including several of road accidents involving fatalities among ponies, and drawing on her long experience with the Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society, Marion estimated there were about 1,000 ponies on the moor now. She recalled that Johnny Reep of Nattor used to keep hundreds of mares. Shetland crosses fared well on the wetter west side of the moor. Cattlegrids now ‘imprison ponies on the high moor’ and prevent them reaching shelter, but the fence across Blackdown (Mary Tavy) was a ‘triumph for commonsense’.

She did not consider hot branding an issue – it was a 4-second procedure. A Celtic cross brand is used for stallions. Collars, she considered, were potentially hazardous.

Marion illustrated how some clapper bridges (of multiple slabs) can be death traps if there are gaps between the stones where hooves can be caught. Of diseases, she mentioned ‘Strangles’ which forms abscesses on glands and which can obstruct airways. ‘Sweet-Itch’ is an allergy to midge bites. There needs to be a more proactive approach from ponykeepers involving 1) Inspection 2) Approval 3) Removal where necessary. Dartmoor National Park Authority should be helping all ponies. There should be a subsidy paid to remove stallions.

In summary

Speed limits should be properly enforced

Proper checking of ponies on commons

Foal numbers need to be reduced

Hotbranding should be accepted

Funding should be available

Open Discussion Session Prior To Lunch

Judy Ehlen asked what happened to the Dartmoor ponies in the First World War. Marion Saunders said she wasn’t too sure, but said that the ponies on Exmoor were used as food in the Second World War, and so no doubt the same thing happened on Dartmoor.

Edmund Marriage added that his grandfather’s job was to obtain horses for duty during the First World War. They were obtained on a compulsory purchase basis and as many as seven million horses were used for pulling gun carriages and very heavy military equipment, which was of course very well shown in the film War Horse. Tom Greeves commented that there is much to learn about the use of horses and ponies during the wars.

Dinie Brickl asked if a comparison had been made regarding the prices achieved between the Exmoor foals and the Dartmoor foals at the drift. John Shears said in his experience there was very little difference between the Exmoor and Dartmoor prices.

Tom Greeves asked whether anyone knew what was the average price achieved at the Tavistock pony sale yesterday, and he was advised it was between £5 and £10.

Captain Wixon made the comment about the tremendous usefulness of the ponies throughout the Industrial Revolution due to the fact that they went down the mines as pit ponies. Although every effort was made to look after these ponies in what was often a horrific environment, nothing could have prepared them for these extreme surroundings.

Robyn Petrie-Ritchie was asked by Sue Hutchings about the interactions of the ponies she had observed, and in particular the impact when the stallion was removed. Robyn replied that she has several hours of filmed footage of how the ponies reacted both with a stallion in the group and also when the stallion wasn’t present. She explained that there was a huge amount of activity in the groups where the stallion was present, and a stallion will even widen its area of coverage if he is aware that there is a group of ponies that doesn’t have a stallion present. The groups with just mares and their foals were a lot more docile. Robyn believed that vasectomising the stallion is a more successful option than removing the stallion altogether.

Fairfax Luxmoore asked whether the ponies would eat the very coarse grass or just concentrate on the fresh young grass? Robyn said that they will eat some of the more coarse vegetation that the other animals won’t eat, but they do prefer the sweet new grass if they can find it.

Mary Godfrey asked about bracken and gorse. Charlotte Faulkner said that the bracken rhizomes get severely weakened when the ponies trample on the bracken. Ponies tend to grind their teeth on the gorse rather than eating it.

Peter Stevens asked if there is any value in keeping the ponies in one herd or is the way they normally group together a more haphazard type of system? Charlotte Faulkner replied that the basic family structure of a herd works well. A good strong stallion will have a number of mares, but a less strong stallion will look after fewer mares. It is not a haphazard strategy as they tend to stay in their family groups, and then that specific family of ponies will normally always stay together.

After lunch, Sue Martin spoke on ‘Pedigree’ and ‘Heritage’ ponies and the Moorland Newtake Scheme.

Sue said that she was brought up around a large herd of horses and ‘pedigree’ Dartmoor ponies, and was originally part of the Coaker farming family. She decided that she didn’t really want to go into farming and so married a builder. However, as the years passed she inherited her father-in-law’s farm of Pizwell and has therefore been around ponies for decades. She now has a herd of ponies and, in her experience, if ponies are born on the hill they will normally survive on the hill, but obviously if they are born on lower ground and in the valleys it is more difficult for them to survive up on the high moor.

Sue is on the council of the Dartmoor Pony Society and also has a huge passion for ‘heritage’ ponies, but willingly supports all types of pony. The Dartmoor Pony Society supports the pure bred ‘pedigree’ Dartmoor pony and registrations have been kept for more than 100 years. Earlier in September Sue went over to Holland where they have been celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Dartmoor pony in Holland itself. Here they are hugely passionate about the Dartmoor pony and she was amazed to discover that her parents had exported the first ponies to Holland and that a number had been bought by the parents of one of the judges.

The Dartmoor Pony Newtake Scheme was set up in 1988 to encourage people to improve the quality of ponies that they bred. A Committee included a representative of the Duchy of Cornwall who funded much of the scheme, the Dartmoor Pony Society, a Ministry Vet and a representative of Dartmoor National Park Authority. They began with 15 mares and a pedigree stallion within the newtake (enclosed moorland). The mares were all inspected by judges and they became ‘supplementary registered’. Through a grading up scheme, and by putting the offspring back to a registered stallion, they eventually achieved the status of a ‘registered Dartmoor’.

The scheme still runs. Over the years numbers have fluctuated with at one time three newtakes and up to 45 ponies. Now it has gone back to one newtake. A new system of an ‘empty newtake’ enables a mare who you don’t want to foal next year to be put in a restricted area. Sue has one of the original Dartmoor ponies of the scheme called Pizwell Brown Velvet, born in 1989, and she has been a fantastic placid children’s pony.

Over the years prices have really fluctuated and people were beginning to realise that as more coloured ponies were being introduced such as Shetlands, Welsh etc they became more anxious about the existence and longevity of the Dartmoor Pony breed.

The Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust was formed in 2005 to support unregistered but ‘traditional’ types of pony which can then be improved to enable eventual registration as purebreds. At Parke, Bovey Tracey, they have a lovely building where they do an enormous amount of education work with ‘special needs’ children. They also assist with castration. Sue gave an example of a castration that she had requested at the same time as a TB test so that there was no separate call-out charge, but she was still charged £163 for the castration of an unregistered Dartmoor colt. Every pony needs a passport and more recently the ponies have to be micro-chipped as well, which can only be done by a vet. The vet also has to sign the passport form. The cost is £15 for the passport; the micro-chipping is between £15 and £25, plus the vet’s call-out fee, so even to give a pony away for nothing costs you money.

Sue mentioned that her parents took Dartmoor ponies to Abergavenny Market and also Paisley Market.

Sue concluded that it is essential to breed quality. Control of the stallions on the moor is vital, and every colt/stallion must be gathered. The Dartmoor Commoners’ Council should be leading the way regarding control and development of the Dartmoor pony. There is no perfect answer but the one thing we all have in common is that we want the Dartmoor pony still here in another 100 years time.

Anna Bassett then spoke on Managing Fertility in Semi-Feral Ponies on Dartmoor.  To achieve fertility control, Anna laid out the options, all of which require a high degree of cooperation: Remove stallions, as in the New Forest. You need a secure location for a managed breeding period of 4-6 weeks. Physical fertility control by: Vasectomising stallions. This is irreversible and leads to the loss of genetics. There can also be behavioural issues. Insertion of marbles or IUDs for mares. There are issues regarding the timing of insertion; the expulsion of marbles; and the long-term use of IUDs.


PZP (porcinezonapalusa) – a byproduct of pigs’ ovaries. It stops sperm fertilizing eggs and has a 90% efficacy rate. It is not yet fully licensed but is as Equity in Australia.

GnRH – a synthesised Releasing Hormone which stops the development of eggs in the mare’s ovaries. It is used in the USA for deer and feral horses and is ‘more consistently reversible than PZP’.

Any fertility control agent needs 

to be 90% effective and capable of remote delivery

to be immediately reversible

to be safe to pregnant animals

to not pass through the natural food chain

to be inexpensive

to have no debilitating effects

to have no influence on social behaviour

The Dartmoor Hill Pony Association has trialled fertility management. In Year One, 25 mares and 1 stallion were within the scheme. 20 mares were treated with Equity, and the other 5 were used as a control. Three injections were given – in May, June and November. 10 mares were pregnancy tested at the third injection and all were negative. 1 mare showed a slight reaction at the injection site, and all mares were very lethargic the day after their injection.

In Year Two Improvac was used. Some mares were removed from treatment in order to establish a return to fertility. Two of the treated mares foaled, which is to be expected with a 90% efficacy rate.

A full report can be found on the DHPA website or via World Horse Welfare.

The final speaker was Charlotte Faulkner from Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony who spoke passionately about the importance of ponies to Dartmoor.

She quoted ‘Arch’ Mortimore who said of ponies, ‘If its muzzle doesn’t fit into a pint mug, it’s not worth having!’ She begged Dartmoor National Park Authority to recognise all types of pony on Dartmoor as all are such important conservation tools. She showed a drum made from reindeer skin as an example of what ponies might be used for, and also showed a pony skin itself, priced at £250. She managed to raise £33,000 for equipment for processing pony meat at Dartmoor Zoo at Sparkwell, which is then fed to their big cats. The meat/bone ratio of a pony was equivalent to that of a zebra.

Charlotte had some fundamental questions to be asked of Natural England:

How does Natural England decide on stocking levels?

How does Natural England gauge the value of semi-feral ponies on the landscape?

If ponies no longer graze Dartmoor, would it matter?

Final Questions & Answers

Tom Greeves said that there seemed to be a general feeling in the room that the Commoners’ Council should take a lead in sorting out problems surrounding the future of ponies on Dartmoor.

Tracey Elliott-Reep said that in her experience having a good stallion is the key. She had a herd of 18 mares and one very good stallion.

Sue Hutchings said we should all be talking to the owners, keepers and herders and would prefer to go down the route of the vasectomised stallion. She thought the most important thing is to know what we have out there.

Timothy Garratt agreed and added that it is totally unproductive for farmers to raise ponies for absolutely no economic gain. He raised the point that there seems to be something of a contradiction in wanting fewer foals and yet more ponies grazing.

Maggie Clark asked about the impact on the ecosystem when the ponies secrete their bodily fluids. Anna Bassett explained that the level of the dose that they are using is set to a natural level so should not harm the environment.

Rob Steemson, DNPA Head Ranger, said that the Commoners’ Council should now take the lead. DNPA had in past years had a budget to support such projects as ‘The Newtake Scheme’, but since 2010 the budget for ponies has been virtually negligible. In 2006/7 DNPA granted £36,000; in 2009/10 the grant was £116,000, but in 2013 only £6,000. In recent years the Pony Action Group had been formed and subjects such as speed enforcement is having a higher profile.

Simon Booty commented that when he started in farming he was told to keep everything pregnant on the farm except the wife! He is personally concerned about removing the stallions and very worried about clearing the common (Spitchwick) as there are lots of hiding places. It is important to retain the gene pool but no one system is perfect. Simon asked, ‘Is there anyone in this room who would be against eating either pony or horse? Only one lady said that she would be, but she was in fact vegetarian.

Jeremy Hatch asked about the logistics of selling the horse meat considering the shortage of abattoirs. Sue Martin explained that the physical cost of sending single animals to the slaughterhouse is simply not viable, especially when you consider the geographic distances involved and also considering that, after culling, you need to keep the pony carcass separate from that of any cattle or sheep.

Tom Greeves asked if anyone had an objection to the setting up of a central data base for the ponies, and nobody did. He went on to say that it is vital for us to have an end market for our product.

Dinie Brickl pointed out that it may be useful to have a slightly larger pony than the one of 12.2 hands which is specified in the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985.

Captain Wilcox wished to congratulate everyone on their hard work and input, and believed it would be beneficial if someone or somebody could oversee everything and unite all the ideas.

In concluding, Tom Greeves said that this could be handed over to the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council because it is a body that, by Act of Parliament, has an obligation to set up proper animal husbandry to sort out such issues. He wished to thank everyone, including both the speakers and also the audience who had contributed so fully. He felt the debate had generated ideas and plans for the future of ponies on Dartmoor. He also thanked members of the Committee who had contributed to the smooth running of the day, as well as the caterers.

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