After almost 25 years of grazing the nature reserves of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, a herd of Exmoor ponies are in urgent need of re-homing as the farm business tenancy has come to an end.
Des and Gill Girdler of Trevilmick Farm, Lanivet, Bodmin, have been trying to negotiate with the Cornwall Wildlife Trust (CWT) to see if the herd can continue to graze the nature reserves which border their farm, but a change in conservation grazing policy by the CWT means the ponies must go by the end of March this year.
“It’s very upsetting as we’ve been part of the scene here at Redmoor, Breney Common and Helmantor for many years,” said Mr Girdler who bought the farm with his wife in 1989. “We bought the ponies all those years ago to do a job under an agreement with the CWT to ensure their sites did not get overgrown. They’ve done great work and in fact the CWT have incorporated some of the pony trails into their wilderness trail.”
Mr Girdler added: “Hardy, native ponies are renowned for being the best all-round conservation grazers as they not only keep the herbage down but also nibble at the gorse, which cattle and sheep do not do. If the ponies go the only way of keeping the gorse under control is to hand cut it and burn it.”
Mr Girdler’s Helmantor herd of ponies are registered with the Exmoor Pony Society (EPS). “We still own 20 acres and will keep one or two but the main herd, approximately 20 animals, will have to go. We are looking for a suitable home/site with the help of others but as they are semi-feral and because of this poor economic climate it is proving very difficult. It’s a heart-breaking time as we are very fond of them all and now the pressure is on.”
Commenting on the change in conservation grazing policy, Callum Deveney, Head of Nature Reserves for the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, said: “We switched to cattle grazing six years ago and the results for wildlife have been fantastic but we do appreciate that the Exmoor ponies have played a very useful conservation grazing role.”
Mr Deveney noted that the Trust is still in discussions with other graziers regarding future management but it will be cattle grazing, however he did indicate that “some” pony grazing may still be necessary.
“The ponies do a great job in grazing woody scrub and opening up the moor but for ongoing maintenance cattle create the structure in the vegetation that we are after. This then benefits a variety of species including the rare Marsh Fritillary butterfly.”
On the deadline for the ponies to be off the land, Mr Deveney added: “We recognise the importance of finding the right home for these ponies and we granted an extension to the tenancy to help this process – we are committed to this and have a third party interested.”
The EPS has been aware of the potential need to re-home the Helmantor herd for a number of months. “At the request of the current owners we have found new owners for both of their licensed stallions,” said EPS secretary Sue McGeever.
“Discussions have been ongoing with the hope of finding a site capable of sustaining the herd as a whole. However, while there is currently a general consensus that there is over-breeding amongst all equine breeds, it is essential that this herd of mares is found a secure site where a non-breeding policy can be maintained until the equine market recovers.
“That said, local EPS members have also been working hard to re-home the ponies to a number of knowledgeable homes and hopefully with everyone working together a solution will be found.”
Dawn Westcott, of the Exmoor Pony Club, confirmed the club’s support for a successful solution for this herd. “This is a thoughtfully bred and long-standing herd of Exmoor ponies, with some important bloodlines. The interest generated from publicity on social media about their predicament is encouraging, both from Exmoor pony enthusiasts who could offer some of them responsible breeding homes, and the Wildlife Trust in possibly retaining some for grazing.
“Conservation organisations are becoming more aware of the Exmoor pony as a prehistoric ancestor and the importance of maintaining semi-feral living opportunities in their indigenous areas, to enable the breed to retain its natural characteristics. Hopefully, more Exmoor ponies can be worked into their land management schemes, alongside other species. The Exmoor Pony Club looks forward to a positive outcome.”
Anyone able to help with re-homing the Helmantor herd should call the EPS on 0845 607 5350.