A new report raises concerns over the ability of current breeding practices to maintain the genetic purity of Britain’s famous free-living Exmoor ponies.
The warning is contained in a new independent report by veterinarian Peter Green looking at the welfare, breeding and management of the ponies within Exmoor National Park.
Green reported that current management and breeding arrangements could not meet the need to include and promote rarer bloodlines.
Green described the Exmoor ponies, recognised as a rare breed under British and European regulations, as a valuable asset within the park.
The animals are divided into separate herds, each belonging to a moorland owner, some of whom are also moorland farmers.
The breed, he said, was considered a valuable genetic resource under the terms of the Farm Animal Genetic Resources criteria, which attracted some state support.
“The genetic diversity of the Exmoor pony is limited,” Green said.
“It has suffered from a very small foundation population, when the breed standard was set in the early 20th century and from significant in-breeding since then.
“Maternal bloodlines have been lost and a few stallions have dominated the stud-book.
“Concern has been expressed about the future purity of the free-living Exmoor ponies because of the increasing presence of non-Exmoor ponies living freely on the moor.”
He said there were considerable difficulties in disposing of foals from free-living herds without consigning them to slaughter, but limitations on breeding risked further constriction of the genetic base of the breed.
“There are no regulations or constraints upon farmers, graziers or landowners that compel them to safeguard the purity of the free-living Exmoor ponies,” he said.
“There is no mechanism or mandatory protocol whereby non-Exmoor ponies must be removed from the moor.
“Under current arrangements, the survival of the Exmoor pony as a distinct type and colour of pony living freely on the moor is dependent solely upon goodwill and cannot be guaranteed.
“Large areas of Exmoor are in private ownership; the land owners are the only ones with the power to set and enforce terms of tenancy or grazing licences that would promote the Exmoor pony.”
He continued: “The need to manage the breeding programme for the breed on Exmoor and to include and promote rarer bloodlines cannot be met by present management and husbandry arrangements.”
He said the insistence upon the DNA testing scheme risked losing valuable genetic material present on the moor.
If the free-living Exmoor pony herds was to thrive and the distinct character of the rare breed was to be preserved on Exmoor, changes in management and in the criteria for registration into the stud-book were needed, Green said.
The report, commissioned by the Exmoor Moorland Landscape Partnership Scheme, the Exmoor Pony Society and Exmoor National Park Authority, found that the free-living Exmoor ponies were in good health.
Exmoor National Park’s head of conservation and access, Sarah Bryan, said: “The key to success is the different organisations working together with the moorland herd owners and land owners to improve the situation and this report will be used to inform an action plan.”
The manager for the moorland partnership, Jason Ball, said: “This is an excellent independent report – the moorland herd owners have discussed Peter Green’s findings directly with him at a presentation evening and Exmoor National Park Authority will be collecting their feedback.”
The Exmoor Pony Society’s Sue McGeever said her group was looking forward to continuing its working relationship with the Exmoor National Park Authority, the Rare Breed Survival Trust and the moorland farmers to ensure that it fulfilled its role as “Guardians of the Breed”, while also working within current legislation.
The Exmoor Pony Society was founded in 1921 by a group of moorland farmers with the aim of keeping the free-living ponies living on Exmoor “true to type” and, in their words, “without foreign blood”.
To do so, they introduced a studbook and an inspection process which has continued throughout the decades.
The low point was just after World War 2 when just 50 ponies remained on the moor.
There are now nearer 500 registered ponies running in 21 herds.
The full report can be read here.