There are currently three Dartmoor ponies at Labrador Bay, Sweet Chestnut, Oakman and Starlight. For details of the farm where our ponies come from go to http://www.northhallmanor.co.uk/ . Their role is carrying out important conservation work through grazing; maintaining and continuing the scrub clearance work in Waterfield carried out by the reserves team and volunteers over the winter.
Dartmoor ponies can be used as an excellent conservation tool due to their varied diet, including grasses, bramble, gorse, and willingness to push themselves through dense vegetation trampling bracken and bramble in the process, controlling the spread, Sweet Chestnut gave a brilliant demonstration of this when we were there the other day, barging through a dense patch of vegetation. This type of grazing produces a wonderful mosaic habitat, with a mixture of sward heights as well as scrub, excellent conditions for grasshoppers and other invertebrates, essential food for the young Cirl buntings that Labrador Bay is so important for.
Using ponies for grazing important wildlife sites can be supported by government agri-environment schemes which provides farmers with a supplementary income for using native breeds, Dartmoor ponies included, to manage areas of land for the benefit of wildlife. These schemes and the ponies’ brilliance at their job means that they are not only being used as management tools in their native south west but nationwide by various organisations such as Norfolk Wildlife Trust. (http://www.dpht.co.uk/index.php)
Unfortunately in recent decades the market value of Dartmoor ponies has dropped significantly causing farmers to find keeping a herd financially unviable, therefore reducing numbers on the moor and threatening the survival of the breed; Dartmoor ponies are now listed as endangered with less than 500 breeding females registered in the UK by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) (https://www.rbst.org.uk/). In 1998, noting this decline the Duchy of Cornwall, Dartmoor Pony Society and the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust introduced, with the support of Dartmoor National Park, the Dartmoor Pony Moorland Scheme. The scheme provided cash incentives for owners of suitable mares to put them into a breeding programme with the aim of maintaining the true to type bloodline
It is wonderful to see a breed such as the Dartmoor pony which has its own struggles being used as a management tool to boost numbers of Cirl buntings at Labrador Bay and hopefully in turn we can help to conserve these wonderful, charismatic local ponies.
Please remember when visiting Labrador Bay, the ponies are not tame and it is safest for them and us that they remain that way, so please do not approach or feed them.
Cirl Bunting Project Intern