Wild Ponies - A Future in
Konik horses used for conservation work at the National Trust's Wicken Fen Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire. Photography Shaun Barr
Could semi-wild ponies have a future in British conservation?
From farming to heavy industry native semi-wild ponies have played important roles throughout British history. Now, as their populations continue to dwindle, could there be an place for them in conservation?
As the vital importance of biodiversity and the grave impacts of species loss becomes better appreciated and understood, smarter landscape management with a view to sound environmental practice steps from the niche shadows it used to be confined in, to mainstream thinking.
The long-term effects of over-grazing due to intensive agriculture can be seen everywhere; where I live and work in the Lake District (ironically a place people flock to for its ‘natural beauty”), the mountains and valleys are almost entirely decimated. What looks like a natural landscape is anything but – a result of decades of intensive sheep grazing which has shorn the mountains of vegetation, leaving a legacy of barren, desolate wasteland. It’s the equivalent of an ecological desert, a damning indictment of the management of an area supposedly protected from such vandalism. Strong words you might think, but the generations which follow us will be asking hard questions about why we knowingly destroyed habitats that I turn drove so many species to extinction and not only did nothing about it but continued to destroy it. Of course the ugly truth is that such an ecologically barren landscape still brings in the tourists in their millions; such an iconic landscape will continue to fuel the economy. So for some, nothing needs to change.
Fortunately, more and more are waking up to the catastrophic consequences of destructive, unsustainable land management. It’s now widely recognised that as the populations of our flora and fauna continue to fall at alarming rates, paying more attention to creating and maintaining sustainable, biodiverse landscapes is crucial to the success not only of the British countryside, but to the entire planet.
Rewilding tends to invoke emotional and often angry responses. Many have a concept in their minds of leaving the landscape to its own devices. And certainly that’s one way of dealing with the landscape: leaving it to become scrubland and eventually, woodland. But generally speaking that isn’t what is being proposed. As humans have killed off so many predators - wolves, bears and lynx for instance - it’s simply not currently feasible to leave things without any human management. We simply do not have a balanced eco-system that would see things look after themselves (we destroyed that). So we have to manage the land to a certain extent.
So in this case rewilding is very much a managed form of rewilding, where land is not indiscriminately stripped bare, and valuable habitat destroyed at the expense of a wealth of species that depend on it, but where vegetation is controlled in a sympathetic way with the goal of increasing species and thus creating richer biodiversity.
And this is where our semi-wild horses and ponies come in. Originally, their natural habitat would have been the open grasslands, plains, and hillsides, and it’s where they can continue to be at home today: from wide open grassland to shrubland and woody pastures.
Semi-wild fell ponies roam the hills of Cumbria all year round. Photography Shaun Barr.
Wild horses and ponies can have a positive impact on the landscape and the flora which grows there. Their very particular process of grazing and trampling, the way they break up vigorous and often tussocky grasslands (which sheep do not), favouring the courser grass species creates shorter swards and conditions in which wild flowers and other favourable plants are allowed to thrive. Without this kind of grazing, courser, longer grasses take over, reducing variety and the wildlife that depends on it.
Britain’s semi-wild horses and ponies are animals of grace and beauty, and for me are such an exciting part of the landscape. But the fact that they can play such an effective and crucially important role in helping us to create richer, more diverse habitats is quite literally a gift horse! They can actively create a landscape that will bring in pollinating insects such as bees, butterflies and hoverflies, as well as thousands of other insect species, followed of course by the birds, bats, and other mammals and reptiles that feed on these insects.
Using horses and ponies for conservation work is already happening. The National Trust at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire have been using a wild herd of Konik horses to sensitively manage their grassland areas for a number of years. The Polish breed was specifically chosen for its ability to cope with the fen’s wetland conditions (which can be problematic for other breeds)
And it’s a win-win for these wonderful equine beauties too. Because as I mentioned at the start of this article British native pony breeds, whether its Exmoor, New Forest, Highland, Fell, Dales or any other, are very much in decline. Using their natural behaviours to better manage land for conservation and rewilding projects will ensure these breeds have a more certain future – and such a positive one at that, restoring and putting back much of what we’ve lost and destroyed, creating sustainable habitats that work so much better for us all.
Fell Pony and Konik Horse Photographic Prints can be purchased from Shaun Barr. Prints can be viewed here:
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