Trotting Home for Christmas

Photographer: Enid Hoseason

The Exmoor ponies have started arriving home for Christmas, completing the magical winter wonderland scene at Rainton Meadows.

Their return, which has created a flurry of media activity including a feature on ITV News, has created a warm glow for staff, volunteers and visitors. Arriving home in pairs, they are coming together not only to enjoy the festive season but to graze the reserve until July.

I caught up with Mark Dinning, Senior Reserves Officer at DWT, and Christine Hutchinson, one of eight volunteer pony wardens, to find out where our four-hooved friends have been and what they have been up to.

The ponies are back, but where have they been?

Mark: The ponies have been spread across eight different DWT sites where they have done a terrific job of keeping grasslands in good condition.

Dixon and Jonah – Addison Hedgefield

David and Robin – Barlow Burn

Lopper and Spedan – Malton

Horace and Wally – Ragpath Heath then onto Black Plantation

Luna and Mimi – Shibdon Pond

Barley and Nicola’s Boy – Westfield Pastures

How were the ponies paired up and how did you decide which reserves they went to?

Mark: The ponies have close friends and so stay in the same pairs or foursomes (cute – I know). Sites with high public use are more suited to the ponies that are a little shy – so they do not bother folk. Whilst, ponies that were more amenable went to sites where they had to be led in over a long distance. Being in pairs also means that most sites, which are quite small, are suitably grazed after three months. At Rainton Meadows they go into larger groups.

What role do the Trust play in looking after the ponies?

Mark: As they are wild ponies, we monitor them. Any signs of major illness we call a vet. One pony had sweet itch so was moved to a site where they wouldn’t be affected by this. Wally had lice, the pony wardens treated this. We always require donations annually to maintain a fund for vet bills etc.

How have the reserves benefitted from their grazing so far?

Mark: Black Plantation is the best example – the site had not been grazed in a number of years, grasses and sedge were starting to dominate, shading out herbs which are important for the small pearl bordered fritillary butterfly. In spring we will see the fruits of the ponies’ labour as grazing has removed the accumulation of annual plant growth, reducing the shading of herbs and reducing nutrients returning to the soil which benefits less competitive plants. It’s a similar story across the rest of the sites. At Rainton Meadows, the grazing has managed the grassland structure for ground nesting birds and the development of new flower rich meadows.

How did you get involved as a pony warden Christine?

I became a pony warden last summer, after a friend drew my attention to an article on the ponies in the DWT newsletter in which the Trust invited people to get involved in the role. I had taken voluntary redundancy from work in the spring so had a bit of time to spare.

Christine with Wally – getting him used to wearing a head collar and lead

What attracted you to the role?

I like to be outdoors, have a keen interest in conservation and love horses, so the role of pony warden ticked all the boxes for me. I have kept a horse of my own for many years so feel confident around horses – although semi wild Exmoor ponies are a different kettle of fish!

What training was provided before you began?  

I attended a training session in June at Rainton Meadows with DWT officers and the Moorland Mousie Trust. The pony warden role and scheme were explained and ponies introduced, along with the proposed schedule for grazing the various nature reserves.

What does the role involve?

Volunteers are asked to check on the ponies two or three times a week – or as often as you like. We look at the ponies to make sure that they are well, checking for any injuries or lameness but mainly making sure they are bright eyed and happy. We also keep an eye on the fencing – to make sure the site is secure, the water supply, and the state of the site to make sure the land is not becoming poached.

What have you noticed about their different personalities?

I helped to move Wally and Horace from the field at Rainton to the reserve at Ragpath Heath in July where they stayed until October. They then moved to Black Plantation. They are both gorgeous. Initially, Horace was slightly more amenable, pleased to come for a scratch whereas Wally was a little wary. After spending a little time with ‘the boys’, both are now pleased to come to say hello although they are still quite wild, as they should be, and sometimes stubborn. Because of the difficult access to the Black Plantation site, myself and another warden (Deborah Hannaby) have been working with the ponies to introduce them to head collars and lead ropes in order to make moving between sites a little easier.

How have they adapted to the new environments?

It is surprising how the Exmoor ponies are at home on these nature reserves, eating all sorts of vegetation and coping with the rugged ground. Their coats are very thick and fluffy so that they are happy whatever the weather. Even though the ponies have moved from my patch now for winter, I won’t be able to keep away. I expect I’ll be calling in every week to see ‘my boys’!

How are you finding the experience of volunteering?

This is my first experience of volunteering with DWT, but I hope to become involved with some other projects in the future. I enjoy the sense of achievement of a job well done, the company of other volunteers and visiting different and interesting places. Most of all I have enjoyed getting to know the ponies.

The video below shows Christine helping to return the ponies safely home.

We hope you get the chance to visit the boys over Christmas too. The reserve is looking very enchanting now, especially when the ponies are galloping in the snow – a true Christmas card scene. Please don’t forget that they are wild animals, so don’t get too close or feed them as it can make them poorly.

If you would like to help look after their welfare by becoming a pony warden, or donate to help with the ongoing costs of keeping our friends happy, please contact Mark on 0191 584 3112.