Why hill ponies are needed on Dartmoor
Dartmoor is a very diverse area, with a great range of altitude and terrain. The hill ponies are utterly unique, as they alone have adapted to live across the entire Moor. For hundreds of years, you have been able to tell where exactly you were on the Moor by the differences in the herds of ponies you could see.
The ponies are an essential part of the ecology of Dartmoor, as without suitable numbers of Hill ponies, the very essence and nature of the Moor could not be maintained. They play a vital role in the balance to maintain Dartmoor, and are worth their weight in gold. Their key function as our ancestors discovered is creating with the cattle and sheep, an acessable paltable moorland able to maintain a healthy viable stock of animals, it is a scientifically proven fact that grazing equids and bovids together is beneficial to soil plants and animals, our ancestors knew what they were doing.
In winter, when there is little else to sustain a hill pony, they go to their winter “lears”, where out of the biting winds, the mares teach their youngsters to find food in the gorse “furze” as it is called on Dartmoor. They alone have worked out that by bruising the gorse with their front hooves, they can bite off the highly nutritious tips with their opposing incisors. Cattle and sheep cannot do this nearly as well, as they only have the necessary front biting teeth on their lower jaws, and do not work the gorse first with their hooves.
There is nothing else, other than by setting fire to it, (swaling), that keeps the gorse under control. Whilst swaling is very beneficial for encouraging regrowth, you cannot set fire to the entire Moor. The number of Hill Ponies needs to be at a level sufficient to keep the correct balance.
In summer, the hill ponies move to their summer “lear”, which may be on higher, more exposed parts of their common, whre the wind blows the flies away, and where you may notice countless little tufts of dead grass strewn atop the turk. This is called “pig’s hair” grass, which is useless to ruminants, but which the ponies enjoy by nipping out the edible centre of the tuft and dropping the coarse outer bristles back on the ground.
The Hill ponies also do a good job of trampling down the bracken and brambles that would otherwise grow unchecked.
Would it matter if the gorse, bracken and brambles were just left to grow? The answer is yes, it would matter as it is very difficult and unpleasant to walk on gorse. Not only that, but keeping the heathland in a healthy state is vital for wild flowers, scarce insects and upland wild birds. In addition, where the gorse has become too dominant, the soil beneath that gorse has become severely eroded. This is because nothing can grow beneath it, and the rain just washes the soil away.
Last, but not least, the Dartmoor Hill Pony is vital as a tourist attraction, bringing much pleasure, to many people who come to the Moor hoping to see them. There is a timelessness about seeing a herd, at any time of the year, blending into the landscape, just doing what they have always doen, asking very little of man and yet giving us so much.