An update from our four-legged conservation assistants at Folly Farm

(c) Louise Treneman

Just before Christmas last year we introduced four Exmoor ponies to our Folly Farm nature reserve in the Chew Valley. The ponies came from the Moorland Mousie Trust, a charity based down on Exmoor who provide a home and future for the excess foals removed from the moor each year during the annual pony herd round up. As part of their work, they provide ponies for conservation grazing on sites across the UK. These ponies are semi-wild, only having been handled a few times to move them off the moor to the Moorland Mouse Trust’s base where they live until they are old enough to go out to grazing sites.

Each year they select a theme to naming the new foals, and our four ponies were born in the year of the cheeses! Wensleydale, Stilton, Mozzarella and Halloumi make up the Folly Farm cheese board. They settled in easily, getting to know the fields of the nature reserve. They have no problem with the muddy, steep uneven ground of Folly Farm, one of the key reasons for bringing them to graze the site. The ponies are the first stage of naturalising the grazing regime at Folly Farm, moving away from domesticated sheep and cattle, to more hardy native breeds. To ensure they stay healthy and happy, the ponies are checked on daily by a dedicated group of volunteers who live locally to the site.

We are already seeing positive change in the fields at Folly Farm despite the ponies having moved in less than a year ago! The areas they poached with their hooves in winter have increased the diversity of wildflowers through creating bare ground for plants to colonise. The paths they walk regularly through scrubby areas have broken up dense patches of scrub and, in time, should allow for a greater diversity of plants to grow in these areas as they create larger open patches. Their biggest achievement to date is reducing the dominance of the creeping thistle at the top of the site. In previous years this persistent species has almost completely covered flat areas of the site, preventing any other wildflowers from growing. We have topped the thistles each year using scythes with our trusty band of volunteers, but it is near impossible to keep on top of by hand. However, for our four-legged conservation assistants, munching thistle heads is an everyday past-time! Through eating the flowers just as they bloom, as well as some of the younger fleshier leaves, the ponies knock back the growth rate of the thistles far more than we humans could ever hope to do in one or two days of scything. As a result, we have seen an increase in wildflower species in previously thistle dominated areas, such as birds foot trefoil, self-heal and knapweed.

Folly Farm is open for visitors to the nature reserve, so do go and visit our four-legged colleagues there! Please remember the site is dog free, and to keep a respectful distance from the ponies. They are inquisitive so may come over to say hello, but they are not domesticated so are not used to people trying to stroke them and can act unpredictably if you get too close.

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You can also find out more about visiting Folly Farm on our reserve page