The Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust has launched a campaign highlighting the grazing benefits of ponies native to Dartmoor as part of a sustainable regime to restore the overall health of the moor. The charity’s Mouths on the Moor campaign aims to redress the damaging loss of precious heathland plants that are becoming engulfed by purple moor grass and other aggressive species, support Dartmoor’s hill farmers by getting more grazing animals back on the moor to increase biodiversity and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. The DPHT says action must be taken now to halt the further decline of Dartmoor’s globally important environment.
Rare and precious heathland plants like heather and bilberry have been lost on around 40% of the moor, overtaken by vast expanses of Molinia grass, and large stands of western and European gorse and bracken. Natural England has recognised the need for consultation to address the decline in the quality of the moorland environment. The public consultation stage of its Independent Review concluded on Monday, 16 October 2023.
Debbie Leach, CEO at Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust, says, “We must find a solution urgently. In 2020, the government made its 30x30 pledge to protect at least 30 per cent of land and sea for Nature by 2030. Two years on, there’s been little progress. We have a stark example of the global Nature Emergency right on our doorstep - here on Dartmoor.
“We believe the solution is for the Government to work closely with Dartmoor’s farmers who understand the moor in their locality better than anyone else. Allowing some initial cutting would enable larger herds and the use of specific feeding strategies to draw grazing animals into these areas, so that they are then able to get their mouths on the moor.
“If the ponies native to Dartmoor and other livestock can once again access and effectively graze the rampant purple moor grass and gorse, as well as trample the bracken, other plants will re-establish. It will also help tackle the over-grazing of other habitats on Dartmoor, making it healthier overall and more attractive to visitors. Most importantly, it will allow the re-creation of biodiverse heathland habitats that support a wide range of animal and plant species.”
Dartmoor’s semi-natural environment is in crisis due to changes in how the moor has been managed and grazed for over a century. From prehistoric times until the 1900s, Dartmoor was a vibrant habitat dominated by heath with bogs and mires. Large areas were maintained under ‘transhumance’ by the sheer number of grazing animals on the Commons. Sheep, cattle and ponies would graze throughout the summer before being taken off in winter when the moor as a whole was left to recover.
After WWII, the ‘headage’ payment scheme replaced transhumance. However, grazing restrictions introduced later to address areas of over-grazing that this created have resulted in fewer hill farmers, and too few mouths on the moor to effectively control the areas now dominated by purple moor grass, gorse and bracken.
The 2002 Foot & Mouth epidemic made matters worse. All grazing animals were pulled off the moor for two growing seasons. Fuelled by increased atmospheric nitrogen from our industrial world, this allowed the purple moor grass, gorse species and bracken - all of which thrive off heightened nitrogen levels - to dominate swathes of Dartmoor. It has not recovered since. One by one, the management options available to farmers have been removed. These restrictions, combined with the reduced stocking levels, have led to substantial changes in the vegetation across Dartmoor.
Now, there’s a growing risk of out-of-control wildfires developing, particularly as our climate warms. Such fires have the potential to release large amounts of stored carbon dioxide from Dartmoor’s peat stores - carbon that must stay locked up in the ground and not be released into the atmosphere.
DPHT Trustee Malcolm Snelgrove says, “Grazing by the ponies native to Dartmoor is particularly effective because ponies target preferred grasses, sedges and herbs, including purple moor grass in spring. A 10-year scientific study on DPHT’s moorland research site at Bellever, in partnership with Plymouth University, has resulted in a large volume of independently-collated, peer-reviewed data. This demonstrates the potential of the Heritage Dartmoor Pony to re-create a mosaic of vegetation that provides a more diverse habitat for invertebrates, small vertebrates and other wildlife. It’s not an overstatement to say the destiny of the ponies native to Dartmoor links directly to heathland re-creation on Dartmoor.
“The knock-on benefit of introducing new sustainable grazing regimes is that the atmospheric nitrogen, taken in by the purple moor grass, will be reduced because the cattle and ponies consume it and then use it to grow!”
The Natural England grazing proposals give farmers maximum allocations for overall livestock and pony numbers - setting livestock and ponies in direct competition. Since livestock is perceived as bringing a better financial return for farmers, DPHT fears pony numbers on Dartmoor would decline dramatically as a result.