The wild landscape of Dartmoor witnessed the annual ritual of the Merrivale pony drift yesterday, where pony herds follow their ancestors down time-worn paths off the moor to the corrals for sorting prior to the sales.
Over a vast terrain of 10,000 acres – Merrivale is one of the largest of the drifts – small groups of ponies started to appear from the Dartmoor mist driven by pony keepers on horse back or quad bike.
From the direction of Two Bridges, a grey stallion, with his windswept mane, cantered into view with a handful of mares and their foals. They carefully, but quickly, picked their way across the grassy moraine clearly heading towards Merrivale.
"The magic is that you have this amazing ancestral knowledge among the ponies," enthused Charlotte Faulkner, founder of the Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association. "The ponies don't take a particular route but they appear to know each point and wander on down towards Merrivale, often converging with other groups as they get closer."
Proof was when the stallion and his herd overshot a right turn and a hit a man-made dyke. He stopped in his tracks, did a swift turnabout, and picked up a path to take him onto the next point.
"The drifts take some organising but it's the amazing teamwork between the pony keepers and the ponies themselves that actually gets the ponies drifted off the moor," added Mrs Faulkner. "In addition, and what is most vital to its success, is the knowledge of the people drifting them and the knowledge within the souls of the ponies – this is something we never want to lose and why is it so important that the knowledge is passed on to younger generations."
The final leg of the drift sees the ponies step onto the steep road down to the Dartmoor Inn at Merrivale where they are ushered into a big corral.
Now gathered, the ponies will be given a health check at home, the foals weaned from their mothers and sorted for either the sales or to be returned to the moor.
The first of the annual pony drift sales are at Tavistock Livestock Centre this Friday, followed by Chagford Market next Thursday, October 11.