Dartmoor hill ponies with GPS to graze East Devon Pebblebed Heaths

A small herd of Dartmoor hill ponies fitted with GPS trackers is helping scientists to clarify how a centuries-old method of managing heathland vegetation with grazing animals enhances nature and wildlife habitats.

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Dartmoor hill ponies with GPS to graze East Devon Pebblebed Heaths

The experiment sees 25 ponies relocating from their hilly homeland to the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths (EDPH) – one of Europe's most important lowland heaths – where they are grazing alongside a herd of Devon Reds.

The animals are fitted with electronic tracking equipment to provide scientists with information, at 15-minute intervals, of where they are grazing, sleeping and spending most of their time.

Scientists from Duchy College and Plymouth University are monitoring and measuring the structure of the vegetation in over 60 permanent sample areas, measuring two-metres squared, on Bicton Common – one of the EDPH’s linked heaths.

Grazing is excluded from control areas to enable comparisons to be made between grazed and ungrazed sites to better understand the impact of the animals.  The data will help inform a long-standing debate around the value of grazing animals to the biodiversity of an area.

The East Devon Pebblebed Heaths, which lies between Exeter and the Jurassic Coast, has the highest European and national environmental designations including Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Special Protected Area (SPA). It is also part of the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and home to a range of rare plants, insects and wildlife including the nationally scarce black bog rush, the Southern damselfly and the Dartford warbler.

Dr Sam Bridgewater is the Nature Conservation Manager for Clinton Devon Estates and has responsibility for managing the core area of East Devon Pebblebed Heaths. He said:  "It has been a long-standing debate among farmers, conservationists, scientists and the public as to the benefits, or not, of grazing animals. Although the benefits of grazing are generally well understood by heathland managers, it has been very hard to prove with any great certainty. Setting up an experiment that stands up to scientific scrutiny can be difficult in an outdoor grazed environment.”

Dr Bridgewater continued: “Last year we undertook studies on the vegetation and some key wildlife groups to provide a baseline to monitor grazing impacts. This year animals will begin grazing on Bicton Common and over time we will build a picture of how their activity is affecting the biodiversity of this area.”

Charlotte Faulkner of the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association, who is loaning the ponies, said: "Dartmoor hill ponies are ideally suited to conservation grazing because they are used to a diet which involves foraging, searching for the most nutritious food and picking through the heathland grasses and nibbling at the gorse and brambles. They are hardy and have been bred for generations to thrive on Dartmoor.

“We have long believed that Dartmoor hill ponies add to the biodiversity of an area but we haven’t had the science to prove it. The benefit for us of having the evidence is that we are concerned that the long-term future of Dartmoor’s ponies is threatened as agri-environment agreements on Dartmoor’s commons increasingly reduce the number of animals allowed on them. This puts ponies in competition with sheep and cattle for grazing places.

“We are trying to promote a traditional mixed grazing model of cattle alongside ponies which, we believe, offers huge environmental benefits and, at the same time, safeguards the future of the Dartmoor hill pony.”

The practice of grazing animals on the Pebblebed Heaths dates back centuries when commoners brought their livestock to graze. Along with the cutting of wood and peat for fuel, heather for bedding and gorse for fodder, the commoners and their stock kept the ever-encroaching scrub at bay, helping initially to create and then preserve the unique landscape.

In recent decades the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust has proactively managed the heathland with controlled burning, gorse coppicing, scrub clearance and bracken control. Grazing has also been used in small discrete areas. In essence the Trust has been replicating the practices of the commoners of old with modern techniques. The expansion of grazing on Bicton Common should allow management to become more sustainable, with the allied research allowing the Trust to contribute to the growing body of scientific evidence on this subject.

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