Opinion: Sentimentality is the Dartmoor pony’s biggest enemy

There are few activities more attractive to a pony-mad teenager than rounding up livestock on the wide open plains of Dartmoor and when I was younger I was up there every chance I got.

September is pony drift season – all the Dartmoor ponies are rounded up in organised ‘drifts’ where all the commoners get together to drive the mares and their foals off the moor to be sorted, checked and sold. I haven’t had the excuse of being pregnant or studying this year so I was eager to join in for old times’ sake.

Mabel is a seasoned stock horse and she relished being back on the moors chasing ponies. She does much of the work with little direction from me, which is just as well as at one point my reins broke mid-gallop. While the drift is somewhat ‘organised’ by the commoners, the communication of the plan is seldom very slick and much of the day was spent trying to figure out what was happening on the hills behind us as we waited for each commoner to clear their designated area and funnel all the ponies into one valley.

Once the ponies are driven off the moor, they are sorted according to which commoner they belong to, identified by a brand on their side. This is when the plight of the Dartmoor pony becomes apparent.

There is very little market for the foals that are produced each year – and the cost of micro-chipping and applying for passports sadly makes it inevitable that many of the young stock end up being shot.

Many of the commoners are committed to keeping ponies on the hill and there is little doubt that they play a major part in the economy of the National Park through the tourists that they attract. The other modern purpose of the wild pony is as a conservation grazer, maintaining the rich biodiversity of Dartmoor’s ancient landscape. A certain number of ponies are critical for maintaining this important role that supports so much wildlife.

Some commoners are working hard to maintain a viable population of well-bred ponies on the moor and maintaining conservation grazing requirements by turning on to the commons castrated ponies that maintain the landscape without creating a surplus of foals. Part of the problem is that too many poor-quality ponies are being returned to the commons and allowed to breed indiscriminately, leading to a proliferation of foals.

Some commoners want to develop the meat trade and market the Dartmoor pony meat as a gourmet product, as a way of allowing them to make a reasonable return from maintaining their herds. However, this is proving to be a contentious issue with many people vehemently opposed to eating wild pony. At the annual pony sales, some foals will be bought by members of the public who believe that they are ‘saving’ them by keeping them as pets, or even releasing them back on to the moor.

What is clear is that there is no simple solution to the problem; if Dartmoor’s commoners cannot create a sustainable income from their ponies soon, they will stop keeping them altogether and the loss of the ancient breed will send ripples through the South West’s tourism economy, which supports many farm businesses. So, should we start eating ponies in order to save them?

The horsemeat scandal highlighted our nation’s reticent attitude towards eating our equine companions, but I can’t help but think that developing a regulated and transparent trade in horsemeat could present a real opportunity for Britain’s wild ponies.

One of the key issues with the horsemeat scandal was the mislabelling of meat products and the fact that they couldn’t be traced to ensure food safety. Surely if ponies were fattened and sold under the same high standards we uphold throughout the rest of the livestock industry, the meat could find a valuable market in the processed food sector. At the end of the day, if someone wants to buy a ready-made lasagne for a pound, should they have a problem with what sort of meat is in it (providing that it is safe)?

I find it somewhat hypocritical that the general public has few reservations about eating wild venison and yet get squeamish about eating ponies. Sentimentality is proving to be the ponies’ biggest enemy; they need careful management in order to safeguard their future and this will need a joined-up approach from all stakeholders.

More must be done to prevent indiscriminate breeding, while the commoners need to be able to access a viable market for the surplus ponies. If this means putting them on the menu, not just in high-end restaurants but in the supermarket as well, I guess I should put my money where my mouth is and tuck into some pony steak.

Not all ponies are pets, after all. I am a die-hard horse lover, but I can distinguish between the horses I use for pleasure and those whose best chance of a dignified existence comes from being farmed for their meat.

The challenge for everyone who cares about the future of the wild ponies is how to communicate this duality of purpose without getting caught up in a heated argument between different factions whose ultimate aim is the same – a strong, healthy population of Dartmoor ponies, owned and cared for by commoners who are proud to keep them.

If a solution isn’t found in the next few years, the sight of wild ponies grazing on Dartmoor could well be consigned to history.

Jess and her husband Will run 75 suckler cows on an 80ha National Trust farm on the Devon/Cornwall border. They have two children, Edward and Lydia. Jess has a degree in rural business management and enjoys horse riding in her spare time

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