Ponies can improve biodiversity through conservation grazing, early results of a study indicate, as it is hoped they will be included in new government policy.
A research project was carried out, on request of Defra and Natural England, by the Dartmoor Heritage Trust with the University of Plymouth at sites on Dartmoor. The project, which started in 2017, aimed to gather scientific evidence on the benefits of ponies as conservation grazers in promoting biodiversity.
Salt blocks were used to attract ponies to areas of moorland dominated by molinia, a grass they would not usually graze.
Paul Lunt, associate professor in environmental science at Plymouth University, told H&H that while the project is ongoing, initial signs are “very promising”.
“The ponies have been grazing on the Lakehead site where they previously weren’t,” he said.“That’s been enough to stimulate regrowth of some heather seedlings, which is what we were looking for.
“Sustainable management of molinia, an aggressive and dominant grass which overwhelms less robust species, presents a serious challenge.
“Changes in management and climate have favoured molinia, and it is a major issue for many upland areas across the UK; it creates a poor habitat and is very prone to wildfire, which allows it to out-compete other plants.”
Professor Lunt said monitoring will continue next year and reports had been given to Defra on the findings so far.
“We hope there can be practical recommendations made for grazing on Dartmoor to pull animals into areas perhaps they haven’t grazed before to improve [the areas’] condition. It could benefit any breeds of ponies used for grazing on sites of special scientific interest,” he said.
Dru Butterfield, consultant advisor to the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust, told H&H the way ponies have been used in the UK for increasing biodiversity is “key” to their long-term survival.
“We’re thrilled to say the ponies have had an impact on biodiversity. We have known for many years through anecdotal evidence that ponies have benefits, but this evidence will reiterate why they are so useful,” she said.
“Natural England said it will be part of the evidence for the new environment land management scheme (ELMS), and we’re working with Defra to do that.”
ELMS is part of a 25-year government plan due to launch in 2025, aiming to protect the environment and make land more sustainable.
A spokesman for Defra said he could not comment, owing to the forthcoming general election.
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