Dartmoor ponies begin their important new job in the Brecks

Dartmoor ponies have been introduced to NWT heathlands at Hockwold and Cranwich to help with the gra

Dartmoor ponies have been introduced to NWT heathlands at Hockwold and Cranwich to help with the grazing and control of the heath. Picture: Matthew Usher.

From the wild uplands of Dartmoor to the lowland heaths of the Brecks, a hardy team of grazing ponies has been set to work preserving a unique East Anglian landscape.

They're a hardy and wilful bunch, whose breed is synonymous with the wild moorlands of Devon.

But Dartmoor ponies are also increasingly becoming part of the scenery in East Anglia, where their skills are being put to use to help manage a unique wildlife habitat.

This week, 16 pedigree ponies made the seven-hour journey eastwards from their spiritual home in the West Country to Breckland, where they have joined a team of conservation grazing animals for Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT).

It brings the strength of the breed's Norfolk contingent to 125 – believed to be the largest collection of Dartmoors outside Dartmoor.

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These semi-wild, moor-bred animals thrive on coarse vegetation in harsh landscapes, nibbling at grass using their incisor teeth to create a short-cropped sward which would not be possible with cattle, which pull up clumps of grass using their long muscular tongue.

That creates the bare ground which allows Breckland specialists to prosper, including the protected stone curlew and rare flora like the nail fungus, which had not been recorded in the county since 1944 until it was rediscovered growing in pony dung in Thetford Forest in 2012.

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David Tallentire, grazing manager for the NWT, said: 'People don't often associate grazing with conservation, but there are very few landscapes in this country that are not created or managed by livestock grazing, because that is our background.

'Most of the habitats we think of as extremely biodiverse have been managed by livestock. What we are tying to achieve here is to replicate the historic management that has created these heaths in the first place. That was a mixture of rabbit grazing, bare ground creation and sheep and pony grazing.

'The Dartmoors are fantastic. They are a very hardy breed and they come from the hills of Dartmoor, so they are able to live outdoors all year round with minimal intervention. So they are very easy to manage.

'What we are trying to achieve is this short-grazed sward. These animals can graze it very short and create the ideal habitat for the plants of Breckland, and specialists like the stone curlew.

'They graze in a way which almost replicates what rabbits do, and they create their own bare grounds through the size of the animal.'

The selection and transport of the ponies was organised by the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust (DPHT), which has been working with NWT for ten years and provides ongoing support to its wardens.

The animals were selected and prepared to help avoid issues with visitors, as the ponies are wary of close contact with people but can be handled by wardens and veterinary specialists for routine care.

Mr Tallentire said: 'We say they are semi-wild. They have all been bred and handled but because of the nature of the site where they come from in the moors of Dartmoor they have adapted very well to Breckland – even on the heaths where it looks like there is minimal grazing.

'The main problem we have is people feeding them. These are hardy animals so they have adapted to survive on very little. If you feed them anything else, even carrots, they can get overweight, so we don't want people feeding them.'

The stocking density of the Dartmoors in Breckland is about one animal to two or three hectares of land. They stay on the land all year round with minimal intervention – although they are monitored regularly by a dedicated team of NWT volunteers, and twice a year they are given a health check by a vet and a farrier.

The new ponies will graze a number of sites, with six joining the Breckland herds at Weeting and Hockwold, and six forming a new herd at Cranwich Camp. Others will supplement the north Norfolk herds at Holt Lowes and Cawston Heath.

John Milton, head of nature reserves for Norfolk Wildlife Trust said: 'As well as faring well on the mixed mire and heath sites of Norfolk – areas not dissimilar to Dartmoor – these ponies thrive on the grass heaths of the Norfolk Brecks, where other livestock have tended to lose condition.'

As well as the Dartmoor ponies, the NWT's grazing herd includes 30 Konik ponies which work well on wetland sites, 800 pedigree sheep and 15 British White cattle.

A genetic ark

The establishment of a significant Dartmoor population in Norfolk is seen as an important safety net for the species in case of disease or disaster in its home county.

Dru Butterfield of the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust (DPHT), who co-ordinated the selection of the ponies with their breeders and the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, said: 'Placement of this group of ponies, which includes nine geldings, five fillies and two mares, ensures that we further add to a herd of good quality Dartmoor ponies which we could potentially draw upon in the case of a future major geographical disease.'

David Tallentire, grazing manager for the NWT, added: 'We see it as a genetic resource. If for any reason the Dartmoor population gets hit, then all these ponies are pedigree registered, so we know their lineage and the stock is all here so that of something did happen at Dartmoor we could start breeding and repopulate the moor. We have got the numbers now, with 125 animals from lots of different lineages.'

Grassland restoration

Six of the new Dartmoor ponies will form a new grazing herd at former military base as part of a wider project to restore grassland habitats.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust secured a £43,500 grant from Biffa Award to encourage rare Breckland plant and invertebrate specialists at Cranwich Camp, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) near Brandon.

Cranwich Camp provides an important breeding habitat for nightjar, woodlark and skylark. It is one of the strongholds for Spanish catchfly and for breeding woodlark and the project will also provide the habitat conditions for breeding stone curlews.

It is managed by NWT on behalf of the Brecks Heath Partnership, a partnership between NWT, Forestry Commission and Natural England.

This project will include changes to the grazing regime, controlling weed growth and the expansion of the rabbit population, aiming to increase the range of rare Breckland plants and animals.

John Milton, NWT's head of reserves, said: 'Cranwich Camp has enormous potential for a number of rare Breckland specialities, having trialled ground disturbance already at this site and seen impressive results in the thousands of Spanish catchfly plants that followed. Grazing with ponies rather than sheep is taking this site to a whole new level in grazing, and is likely to simulate the conditions that have led to the site being one of the most important in the Brecks.'

Are you involved in a landscape-scale conservation project? Contact chris.hill@archant.co.uk.

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