Meet our new four-legged conservation officers!

This week we’ve welcomed four Exmoor Ponies to our Folly Farm nature reserve in the Chew Valley to start work as our conservation assistants! This sturdy native breed is excellent for conservation grazing, because they thrive in tough terrain including steep slopes, boggy areas and places with cold and wet weather. Conservation grazing is when we use semi-wild or domesticated animals like cattle, horses, goats or sheep to help wildlife flourish in grasslands, heathlands, wooded pasture or wetlands.

Our four ponies arrived from Exmoor and had been looked after by The Moorland Mousie Trust – a charity dedicated to protecting Exmoor ponies. They settled in quickly after their journey and trotted off to start their important eating work, enjoying their new surroundings.  Our ponies arrived already named and are all called after cheeses, so we’re getting to know Wensleydale, Halloumi, Stilton and Mozzarella – our very own Folly Farm cheeseboard!

Exmoor ponies are selective grazers, meaning that they move around the land, munching on different areas of plants as they go, as opposed to sheep which act more like lawn mowers – eating everything in their path. Whilst the ponies do like young sweet grass, they will happily tackle tougher grasses, soft rush, bramble, thistles and gorse - plants that many livestock find unpalatable. As they have evolved to survive on Exmoor, these plants are a natural and important part of their diet - the thing that is most likely to make an Exmoor pony ill is too much lush green grass! By munching away and keeping tougher plants from dominating, the hillside grasslands at Folly will get more light and allow the wonderful array of wildflowers like the delicate mauve heath-spotted orchid and devil’s bit scabious, and the tall spikes of yellow rattle to flourish in the future.

Exmoors are a native breed of pony identified by their distinctive colouration and build. Their colouring is limited to bay, brown and dun, with black markings. They have no white on them, which makes sense when you think of the habitat they evolved to blend in with; heather, bracken and grass. They have mealy muzzles and neat, hard feet at the end of stocky legs well suited to the tough terrain of the moor. Their coat is designed to deal with the extreme weather conditions they can face, with a short bright coat in summer, but a double layered shaggy coat in winter. The outer hairs are course and greasy to repel rain and snow, while the inner coat insulates against the cold – imagine wearing a thermal jacket with a raincoat on top. It’s so effective at keeping heat in, that snow will settle on the ponies’ backs instead of melting off! As semi-wild animals, Exmoors stay distant from people and won’t pose any threats to people or other wildlife, as long as they’re left alone to get on with the job.

In several of our steep grassland areas at Folly Farm, scrubby plants like bramble grow vigorously. We hope the ponies nibbling and trampling the bramble cover will reduce it and mean we and our dedicated volunteers will need to spend less time cutting brambles back. Reducing the bramble cover will allow for more wildflowers to flourish, with patches of scrub remaining as shelter and perch sites for birds.

Children visiting Folly Farm on school visits will have a chance to see the ponies grazing, and our education team will help them learn about the place of native breeds in helping with conservation grazing.

If you’re visiting Folly Farm, you’re welcome to see the ponies but it’s important not to feed them or try to stroke them.  Feeding them could make them ill and going too close could frighten them and lead to an injury.

Why not plan a winter walk at Folly Farm over the Christmas holidays? 

You can find out an update about our wonderful Exmoor ponies in my next blog.

Exmoor ponies grazing