Dartmoor hill ponies face extinction due to a drop in demand for their offspring.
According to Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony (FDLP) there are around 700 foals produced each year, which are proving very difficult to sell on. As a result, many are being shot and used as lion meat for zoos around the UK.
“Many farmers are going to stop keeping ponies on Dartmoor because they cannot justify managing and breeding something which has no sales value,” explained Charlotte Faulkner from the FDLP.
Numbers of Dartmoor hill ponies have dropped from around 30,000 in the 1950s to about 850 now. And things are only going to get worse.
Further incentive for moorland farmers to cull their Dartmoor hill ponies has come in the shape of a new grazing conservation payment from Natural England. Farmers can effectively graze only one type of stock, even though grazing sheep, cattle and ponies together has health benefits for all animals concerned.
“They’re not going to choose a pony, because they won’t get a return from it, but cattle and sheep are their bread and butter,” said Charlotte. “Once they would go to a market with ponies and be able to buy a tractor with the money, but now they’re not selling. They’re lucky if they can cover their fuel to get there.”
However, David Hirst from Natural England said that the organsiation was firmly committed to supporting all efforts to preserve the ponies.
"It is wrong to say that Natural England is withdrawing support for ponies or compelling farmers to put only sheep and cattle out to graze," David told H&C. "The existing Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreements that we provide continue to provide funding for ponies on commons and there is flexibility for farmers and Commoners’ Associations to support pony keepers through HLS. These agreements can make a real difference, but the future of Dartmoor ponies relies on partnership working between a large number of individuals and interest groups."
Donna Penwell is one young farmer being forced to get rid of her ponies, as her father needs to graze sheep instead. Like most farmers Donna loves her herd, but they’re just not financially viable.
According to Charlotte it’s not just for financial reasons that farmers are opting out of the 3,000 year tradition of keeping herds of ponies on the moors.
“It’s not just about making money – farmers don’t want to bring their lovely ponies down only to have them shot,” she said. “They do really care passionately about them. My heart bleeds for them as they don’t have an option.”
Without the ponies grazing on Dartmoor the landscape will be changed forever.
“It’s an amazing landscape, created by a balance between ponies, sheep and cattle,” said Charlotte. “But it’s now becoming wilderness because we are not grazing it the way we should. We have something so precious but nobody seems to give a stuff.”