Loss of mares jeopardises Dartmoor breed – trust

Dartmoor ponies from the Norfolk Wildlife Trust's herd.
Dartmoor ponies from the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s herd.

The loss of mares is a major risk to the future of the broad base of good bloodlines in Dartmoor ponies, the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust says.

“Losing them is the greatest danger to the future of our native Dartmoor pony,” the trust said. “Too many have already been lost in recent years; this must stop.”

It was commenting on what it described as the continued problem of Dartmoor ponies being culled for zoo meat, which it said had provoked many to once again become concerned about the plight of one of Britain’s most popular native breeds.

The trust said the problem of excess numbers of horses and ponies in Britain was mirrored across virtually every country in the world and every area of horse and pony breeding.

Dartmoor ponies were not alone in suffering the effects of a changing world, it said, adding that market values even for the better animals was way down.

On Dartmoor, all the feral or semi-wild ponies are owned by farmers or ponykeepers. They are responsible for all the breeding, management and welfare of their ponies.

“There are many wonderfully dedicated breeders who manage their stock well and breed only to meet market demand.

“However, the crisis combination of so many factors, including legal changes such as requirements for passporting and microchipping, transport restrictions, world recession, fewer young farmers willing to take on the commitment of ponies, buyers wanting ready-made ponies rather than taking on youngsters and bringing them on – all of these are having an impact now.

“These factors affect the demand for ponies and the cost of producing them, making it unrealistic to expect any great future for many of these animals right now.

“Paying pony keepers to keep their animals on the Moor is not viable and will not stop the perennial problem of breeding for markets that have largely disappeared.”

Grazing rights, it said, were only sufficient to support the foundation mares and stallions.

“There is not room for the annual foal crop to return to the Commons. In previous decades, this was not a limiting factor so greater numbers of ponies could run on the Commons. And there were more opportunities to sell six-month-old foals.

“The reason so many are being culled now is that colt foals and fillies not suitable for replacement breeding stock have to be removed from the Commons, creating an annual glut in the autumn.

“Although it is not easy to find one solution, it is agreed by all that a proper, concerted breeding programme on Dartmoor is necessary and the Dartmoor Commoners Council is the organisation that has the statutory power to take the lead and deliver a new direction in sustainable pony keeping on Dartmoor.”

The trust said a commitment to controlling breeding on Dartmoor, through every possible, practical means, by everyone involved in pony breeding, was critical.

“Allowing foals to arrive year after year only perpetuates a problem. The short-term fix is to reduce the number of foals, but the long-term goal must be to improve quality and allow ponies to grow on and mature, then be handled and have true added-value for the potential buyer.”

The trust said Dartmoor was in danger of losing some of its longest-established breeders and the better quality pony bloodlines and foundation stock of true Dartmoor type.

The trust said it had been successful in finding homes for hundreds of Dartmoor ponies.

“We have opened up new markets such as conservation grazing, add value to ponies through handling and castration of colts, for example, to ensure better income for their owners and so help Dartmoor farmers to survive and continue to breed and preserve the best ponies on the Moor.”

It said it promoted the temperament of the breed as being ideal for family riding and driving ponies.

“The trust firmly believes that control of the breeding mares, through removal of stallions, stallion vasectomies and mare contraception, is the key.

“We do not want fewer ponies on the Moor, in fact we want more, but the best conservation grazers and the animals most likely to find homes are the older animals – 2 years plus – which have had a chance to grow on.

“We add value to these ponies by offering handling and basic starting so that they can go to homes with a strong, solid basis for their future work, whether as conservation grazers, or as companions/riding/driving ponies.

“We pay for castration of colts and inspections of youngstock to ensure they meet quality and type expectations for the Heritage Dartmoor. These roles considerably reduce the cost for pony keepers and help to make the ponies a more viable crop.”

The trust said it continued to seek new sales avenues for pony keepers and worked hard to develop those already established, including conservation grazing with the National Trust and other organisations around Britain.

“We have also gathered, through the generous support of sponsors, a small number of fillies from herds that are expected to disappear, so that those bloodlines can be available in the future to pony keepers and breeders to access the best of the ancient bloodlines and characteristics of Moorland bred ponies.

“We are holding on to some of the heritage lines to create a reservoir for breeders to introduce to their herds or to start new ones as markets improve.

“Disposing of mares is a major risk to the future of the broad base of good bloodlines that have helped to safeguard the traditional types and herds on the Moor; losing them is the greatest danger to the future of our native Dartmoor pony. Too many have already been lost in recent years. This must stop.”


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