The Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust is launching the 'Mouths on the Moor' campaign to help the environment. Image: Snelgrove Photography.
The Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust is launching the 'Mouths on the Moor' campaign to help the environment. Image: Snelgrove Photography.

Dartmoor conservation charity launches ‘Mouths on the Moor’ campaign

5 min


Ponies born and bred on Dartmoor can play a pivotal role for environment

The Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust is launching a campaign to highlight the benefits of grazing ponies which are native to Dartmoor. It’s part of a sustainable regime to restore the overall health of the moor.

‘Mouths on the Moor’ aims to redress the damaging loss of precious heathland plants that are becoming engulfed by purple moor grass and other aggressive species.

It aims to 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 team says action must be taken now to halt further decline of Dartmoor’s globally-important environment.

Experts say that rare and precious heathland plants, like heather and bilberry, have been lost on around 40% of the moor.

These species have been overtaken by vast expanses of Molinia grass along with European gorse and bracken.

Natural England has recognised the need for consultation to address the decline in the quality of the moorland environment.

The Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust says grazing ponies can help to reduce molinia and allow native plants to thrive. Image: Snelgrove Photography.

Campaigners say finding an urgent solution is a priority

‘We must find a solution urgently,’ says Debbie Leach, CEO at Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust.

‘In 2020, the government made its 30 x 30 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, literally, 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.’

Mouths on the Moor campaign highlight the benefits of grazing ponies. Image: Snelgrove Photography.

Dartmoor’s semi-natural environment is in crisis due to changes in how the moor has been managed and grazed for over a century.

Areas now dominated by purple moor grass, gorse and bracken.

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 the Second World War, the ‘headage’ payment scheme replaced transhumance.

Restrictions were introduced later to address areas of over-grazing. The move resulted in fewer hill farmers, which, in turn, meant a reduction in the numbers of mouths on the moor. Cue a rise in purple moor grass, gorse and bracken.

The 2001 Foot and Mouth epidemic made matters worse. All grazing animals were pulled off the moor for two growing seasons.

Scientists point out that increased atmospheric nitrogen, as a result of industrialisation, fuelled nitrogen levels. The increases led to the domination of purple moor grass, gorse species and bracken across swathes of Dartmoor. 

Experts say management options available to farmers have been effectively removed. Restrictions, combined with the reduced stocking levels, have led to substantial changes in the vegetation across Dartmoor.

They add that there’s a growing risk of out-of-control wildfires developing, particularly as our climate warms.

Scientists say Carbon should remain ‘locked up’ in the ground

Such fires have the potential to release large amounts of stored carbon dioxide from Dartmoor’s peat stores. Scientists say the carbon should remain ‘locked up’ in the ground – and not be released into the atmosphere.

‘Grazing by the ponies native to Dartmoor is particularly effective because ponies target preferred grasses, sedges and herbs, including purple moor grass in spring,’ says DPHT Trustee Malcolm Snelgrove.

‘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!’

Recent proposals include giving farmers maximum allocations for overall livestock and pony numbers.

Critics say any such move could result in setting livestock and ponies in direct competition.

They add that livestock is perceived as bringing in a better financial return for farmers. The DPHT team fears pony numbers on Dartmoor could decline dramatically as a result.

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