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Friday, November 5, 1999 Published at 16:35 GMT


Conservationists rely on pony power

Only a few years ago Exmoor ponies were close to extinction

By the BBC's Matthew Leach

Matthew Leach discovers Exmoor ponies in Lancashire
The Exmoor pony has been around for about 130,000 years. When the genes for cuteness were being handed out it was obviously at the front of the queue. But being cuddly doesn't guarantee survival.

A few decades ago there were only 50 ponies left after many had been killed for food during war-time rationing. The breed was close to extinction. It might have died out altogether but for the work of Exmoor enthusiasts and although numbers are now up to 1,000 worldwide, the ponies are still endangered.

[ image: An Exmoor munches its way through a clump of grasses and thistles]
An Exmoor munches its way through a clump of grasses and thistles
Now however Britain's oldest native horse has found itself a new job. It is being used to munch its way through weeds on fragile landscapes to help rare plants and wildlife thrive. By proving its value it is also helping to protect itself, as demand for the ponies is growing.

Margaret Mackintosh and her husband Tim run Exmoor Ponies In Conservation. They keep a small herd at Silverdale in Lancashire and promote their use in what is called conservation grazing.

Mrs Mackintosh says, ''We've had success with the ponies on several sites in the area. It's a great niche for them and we've been able to breed some ponies purely because there's now this need for them on the grazing programme.''

[ image: Mary Mackintosh says the programme has been a great success]
Mary Mackintosh says the programme has been a great success
The ponies go to work on a variety of landscapes eating their way through thorns, thistles and tough invasive grasses. Fortunately an Exmoor eyes up a bunch of thistles in the same way we might look at a slab of chocolate.

At the Gait Barrows National Nature Reserve in Silverdale one of their jobs has been to clear a wetland site. More efficient than lawnmowers and less harmful than herbicides they're a conservationists dream.

The site manager at Gait Barrows, Rob Petley-Jones, says the ponies are excellent at eating all the rank grasses and regrowing scrub. He says the grazing has allowed flowers to come through which provide food for the caterpillar of one of Britain's rarest butterflies, the marsh fritillary.

[ image: The ponies allow rarer flowers to thrive which in turn provides food for rare butterflies]
The ponies allow rarer flowers to thrive which in turn provides food for rare butterflies
''We now hope to reintroduce it here as part of its recovery programme. The ponies create the conditions to make this possible and they've got a very important role in the conservation of this rare butterfly,'' he says.

Another important plus to having the ponies on the job is they'll work round the clock and in all weathers. Exmoors are now being used this way in Cumbria, Yorkshire and Kent, and the idea has even attracted interest from abroad.

The neat trick of giving one endangered breed a better chance of survival by using it to help other rare species to thrive can't help but be appealing. With the growing demand for them on conservation sites it seems that having found a new purpose this beautiful breed of ponies may now have a more secure future.

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