In the beginning there were British hill ponies and woolly mammoths and you could walk to Calais. During the past 130,000 years of progress, we have lost all of that. Well nearly - there're still a few Exmoor ponies around, the only equines with the characteristics of their country cousins from the cave paintings. Unfortunately, at the beginning of the 21st century, Exmoor ponies are paddling around in the shallow end of the gene pool, on the cusp between endangered and critically endangered.
Why the world isn't beating a path to the door of every Exmoor breeder in the country, I just don't understand. They are noble, intelligent and beautiful animals. They are interested in what goes on around them and will readily form strong relationships with one another and with their owners.
The crisis in agriculture, the BSE debacle and falling livestock prices have left our wildlife organisations with enormous problems in finding grazing animals to manage national nature reserves, sites of special scientific interest and other sites of special biological diversity. Where grazing animals are available, they are often modern breeds, unable to take advantage of the rough grazing that is a feature of these special sites. Local enthusiasts and the organic producers who use the rare breeds of sheep and cattle that are more suitable for the job are not widely available.
Enter the Exmoor pony. A hundred thousand years of interacting with, but not damaging, its environment. The grazing animal that eats the rough stuff; molinia. purple moor grass, tor grass, common rush; that will happily work all day on wetland sites; that will work outside in all weathers; that will 'do well' on vegetation that no other common herbivore will look at. The browsing animal that helps control scrub and bramble. And the conservation grazer that doesn't eat the flowering plants; that encourages the orchids, the devils bit scabious and the other plants upon which the invertebrates depend. The Gait Barrows herd are employed to support and help regenerate, the high brown fritillary butterfly, Britain's rarest. Exmoor ponies in other parts of the country are similarly employed on behalf of fritillary butterflies and other rare species of flowers, plants and invertebrates.
The eruption of demand for the Exmoor pony as a conservation grazer has brought with it some problems. When farmers grazed nature reserves they brought with them their experience of animal husbandry and management and the warden did not have to worry about welfare issues. Today wardens are having to acquire their own animals to work on their own reserves and the animal's welfare is suddenly their responsibility. The experience of managing ponies as agricultural animals has all but disappeared from Britain. To whom do wardens turn for guidance in such circumstances?
Enter EPIC, Exmoor Ponies in Conservation. They have turned to EPIC as a hot line source of information and as projects are being established all over the country, we are increasingly unable to do all that is needed. What is required is a network of interested and equine-experienced potential volunteers who would like to work with local nature reserves and their Exmoor workforce to advise and assist. When to worm, trim feet, call the vet, move to other grazing etc. It is our experience that reserves will pay their volunteers' expenses and that working with small herds of Exmoor ponies in wild and beautiful places is so rewarding in its own right.