A herd of Exmoor ponies is helping to control grassland on the South Downs

Around 30 Exmoor ponies are helping to protect the flora on the South Downs in a scheme operated by DEFRA.

Exmoors are one of the few native British ponies to graze on tor grass, a species avoided by most livestock and which can become dominant at the expense of other species of grass, wildflowers and herbs.

The ponies have been grazing in a fenced-off section of East Sussex and will be moved on once the tor grass has gone.

The scheme is proving so successful that there are plans to increase the numbers next year.

Elliot Morley, Countryside Minister at DEFRA, said : “The Exmoor pony project on the South Downs has resulted in some of the best displays of orchids flowering on the Firle escarpment since the 1960s.

“This is a cracking example of the type of land management that DEFRA is encouraging in the countryside.

Monty Larkin, a senior ranger from the South Downs Conservation Board, who bought the ponies to the Downs, said: “Exmoor ponies are an extremely hardy breed.

“They have thick coats, are sure-footed on the steep slopes of the Downs and are able to cope with the unpalatable tor grass. “

Farmers in the area are reported to be interested in encouraging ponies on their land to help improve the grazing for cattle and sheep.

Exmoor breeders are also delighted at the scheme. Sandra Mansell from the Exmoor Pony Society, said: “The ponies are not just helping to conserve the habitat, they are also helping to conserve themselves.

“They’ve also been used by the National Trust for a number of years. All these schemes help to keep the number of ponies up and keep the diversity of bloodlines going.”