For an encounter with an animal that's possibly rarer than the giant panda, head west: Paul Bloomfield meets the ponies of Exmoor – and the people working to protect them
The wildlife encounter most visitors to Exmoor crave most is a sighting of a red deer – and it’s hardly surprising. Bearing a huge rack of antlers spreading nearly 1m, the majesty of a mature stag is undeniable. But what’s the best way to spot a deer? One rather surprising answer I received was: look for ponies.
“When you train your eyes to search for ponies, you see so much more,” says Linzi Green. “It really helps you enjoy the environment. Most days I see deer on the moor, because I’m looking in a different way.”
In fairness, Linzi may be biased. As Exmoor Pony Officer of the Moorland Mousie Trust, she spends her days working with foals and adult ponies, helping visitors and locals alike understand the importance of this rare breed to Exmoor.
With a mere 300 or so roaming Exmoor, ponies are outnumbered ten to one by red deer; the Rare Breed Survival Trust has registered them as endangered. Indeed, there may be fewer Exmoor ponies in the world than giant pandas.
These ponies aren’t wild – all belong to the owners of the land on which they graze – but as essentially free-living creatures, they might as well be. Some 15 herds roam designated blocks on the moor, so if you head to the right areas you have a good chance of meeting them – though you’ll need to keep your eyes peeled; their brown coats blend into the foliage surprisingly well. I spotted my first ponies on the slopes of Dunkery Beacon, but Winsford Hill is another good place to look. It’s home patch to the Anchor Herd, established by Sir Thomas Acland in 1818 when the Royal Forest was sold.
For a guaranteed close encounter, head for the Exmoor Pony Centre near Dulverton. Here, Linzi and her team train and care for perhaps a dozen new foals each year. I asked her to tell me more about the origins of the breed.
“Britain’s native ponies probably arrived around 130,000 years ago, grazing lowlands till rising waters at the end of the last ice age drove them up to higher ground,” she explained.
During the Second World War, Exmoor’s ponies had a tough time. Rustled for meat, and even used for target practice, only about 50 survived. But thanks to the efforts of the Exmoor Pony Society (which manages the stud book) and Moorland Mousie Trust, numbers have rebounded.
Today, hill farmers recognise the importance of their ponies for maintaining the land, and cherish the animals’ place in Exmoor’s heritage. Each autumn, the herds are rounded up and foals registered and inspected. It’s at this stage that the Moorland Mousie Trust comes in. Not all foals can be returned to the moor – there’s not enough grazing for numbers to increase. So the Trust takes in a number each year – mostly colts – and works with them to prepare them for life as riding or grazing animals, some loaned out to other regions for vital conservation grazing.
Linzi introduced me to three of the centre’s inimitable characters: Dylan, Tom and one-eyed Winston. Tom nuzzled her affectionately as she rubbed his thick winter fur to expose his herd number and the diamond mark on his shoulder that confirms he’s been inspected and registered.
In November, visitors to the centre can watch the young colts being trained. Individual one-hour taster sessions are tailored to the needs of individual visitors, giving the chance to groom and learn about the ponies before taking a ride. Half-day treks take keen riders out onto the moor to discover just how confident and sure-footed the ponies are.
This article was written by Paul Bloomfield