Conservation grazing, Dartmoor style.

Natural England’s Yarner wood ponies have returned for another year and without these symbols of Dartmoor I’d be permanently strapped to a brushcutter during the winter months. In order to help deliver our Higher Level Stewardship targets for out wet meadows we have been borrowing a herd of Dartmoor ponies for a couple of years now.

Historically grazed by cattle, our wet meadows languished for a couple years without any grazing and because of the nature of the site, no hay cut was taken off them. What occured in the intervening period was a greater rush and grass sward restricting the growth of flora species such as Trefoils, Devils bit Scabious and Vetches. Increasingly Bramble, Bracken and Balsam have come to cover large swathes of the wet meadows especially on the shadier east facing banks.

Thanks to our agreement with Natural England the Yarner ponies graze from August to late Novemeber and they have already made their mark in helping reach our conservation goals in our wet meadows.

They have reduced the rush and grass sward, made in-roads into some of the bracken and bramble as well as grazing on young saplings therefore keeping natural regeneration in check. This means that the meadows are becoming more floristically rich and in turn support a wider variety of invertebrate species. See Adrian Colston our General Managers recent finds in the wet meadows here and here

 

On a recent visit to the site Matthew Oates, the National Trust’s butterfly specialist described the show of Green-veined Whites as the, “best he’d seen for years…” and this in part can be attributed to our four legged beasts, whose grazing has allowed a resurgence of Cuckooflower or Lady’s Smock,  which is the larval plant food Green-veined Whites, allowing them to flourish.

However whilst in situ there have been concerns raised over the welfare of the ponies in sometimes especially in wet conditions. We have the welfare of these ponies foremost in our minds but we mustn’t forget that the Dartmoor is a hardy breed used to extreme conditions throughout the year up on the open moor. So the ponies might look miserable in the rain (who wouldn’t!) and might be up to their fetlocks in mud in some parts but I have been assured by the ponies handler, as well as the reserves manager at Yarner that this is nothing unusual and when they return home, they seek out the same wet boggy areas…

Hopefully the ponies will be here for the foreseeable future as part of a mixed grazing regime and will continue to enable us to reach some of our important conservation targets.

 

 

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