THE DRAMA OF DARTMOOR
Translation of my blog for Dutch equine magazine, the 'Hoefslag': THE DRAMA OF DARTMOOR
DICK FRANCIS OF THE MOOR
Why does Dutch equine magazine the 'Hoefslag' publish the possible new policy for the wild ponies on Dartmoor? Because the Dartmoor Pony is very much loved by many Dutch youngsters.
And why does there need to be a change of policy? Not too long ago the moor was overgrazed and limits were put in place in such a way that the bureaucracy of it did not make things easy for the hill farmers and others keeping ponies on the commons.
Through no fault of their own many were pushed into gradually losing heart to keep their ponies which could potentially become a serious problem. Together with the sheep and cows, the ponies are maintaining a landscape and ecosystem and it would be a tragedy if it were lost.
So the reoccurring problem of how to keep the numbers just right needs to be correctly addressed time and again.
I felt compelled to find out more, so I allowed myself an exploratory little trip in order to indulge on the beauty of a countryside I love so much and where some 30 years ago, sitting on a tor, I made the decision to move from the flats of Holland to the green and lush hills of the Southwest of England.
Of course I was also hoping to find some 'pony people', who could shine their light on some of the issues I did not quite understand.
Ha! After yesterday I could start a new career as the Dick Francis of Dartmoor. There's all kinds of intrigues going on in this rugged part of Devon; only, sadly the ponies are the victims...
A DARTMOOR PONY OR A DARTMOOR HILL PONY, THAT IS THE QUESTION!
Just to make things clear for those who didn't know yet. The Dartmoor Pony is a breed with papers attached and the Dartmoor Hill Pony is the wild pony who through an evolution of some 4000 years has learned to survive on Dartmoor. It comes in all colours and sizes unlike the Dartmoor Pony, which has to be bay, brown, black, grey, chestnut or roan, no piebalds allowed and excessive white markings discouraged.
A contraception program for the Dartmoor Hill Pony mares was brutally put on hold by a dramatic and long-winded investigation, which was a huge blow for the volunteers of the charity organisation 'Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony’, who were in charge of the execution of this potentially great solution of not having to shoot some 400 foals every year.
After yesterday I know quite a bit about the commitment, the management, the fights; in short, the problems of humans and beasts on Dartmoor. This, because on my six-hour adventure I quickly found two of the key figures involved...
EVIE AND LILY, CHLOE AND ROSIE
But not until I had met little Chloe and Rosie on the backs of their two delightful grey ponies, Evie and Lily, led by their patient mum. Evie and Lily were typical Dartmoor Hill ponies, happily re-homed after having been rescued. Not every person buying a hill pony knows what they are getting themselves into, which causes for some terrifying animal abuse.
'If you stroke Evie you must stroke Lily also', Rosie told me with a very serious face.
THE LADY IN THE PUB...A HORNETS NEST DISCOVERED
After leaving the two frantically waving mini horse riders, I drove through Two Bridges to Hexworthy, slowly passing Huccaby farm, gazing with nostalgia at the few tents in the little field on the river Dart. This is where my then boyfriend and I used to camp nearly 40 years ago among the South Devon cows with Bertie, the bull, who decided to check out our tent one evening.
I went to the same small hotel 'The Forest Inn' where we used to have dinner on a rainy night, when cooking outside the tent was not fun. There, at the bar, used to sit some locals with their pints; very likely the hill farmers I was hoping to find. Wrong time of the day for that, of course. 'But', said the landlord, 'that lady at the food bar will tell you everything.'
Well, This lady, SJ (short for Sarah-Jane Norris) was keen to talk. An enthousiastic hands-on woman with two long black plaits gave me a waterfall of information and not all was that uplifting.
Having lived and worked on Dartmoor for many years, SJ was now the photographer at all the events organised by the ‘Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony’. Also at the traditional drifts in the autumn where the ponies are gathered in the pounds. There the owners can divide their ponies into what gets sold, what goes back on the moor and, sadly, what will have to be shot.
Have a look on SJ's timeline; her photographs are stunning!
CHARLOTTE FAULKNER, DRIVEN AND A FORCE TO RECKON WITH
With a huge amount of respect SJ talked about Charlotte Faulkner, the unstoppable engine behind the ‘Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony’, a registered charity. Charlotte has been battling for years to drop the numbers of foals which are denied to grow up. She has been working tirelessly to try and make life for the hill farmers as easy as possible in order for them to want to carry on keeping ponies, to improve the life of the ponies themselves and with that maintain the Dartmoor ecosystem, with all the little plants and butterflies that go with it. Not only the sheep and cows, but also the ponies who don’t mind eating gorse and other prickly things, play their part for Dartmoor to survive the way we love it so very much.
One of my questions to SJ was: why not the ‘pony pill’, which I had read about? Why this new idea to keep the ponies up to three years, when there is still the issue of slaughter? And, by the way, are people really going to eat horse meat in the local restaurants?
SJ said that, although she wouldn't be able to eat horse meat herself, that she saw the reason for trying to give it a go. But the surprise of the day was when she talked about the contraception project.
'Have you not heard of the investigation?' SJ became clearly emotional when she talked about how this project, which had already been proven to be successful in its very first year, had been obstructed in such a vicious way. But she felt that Charlotte had to tell me this herself.
When I left, SJ thanked me warmly for listening, 'this was fate,' is what she said...
UNJUST AND UNDESERVED
Back in my little car, I marvelled at the colours, even on a rainy day, cruising slowly through one of the bleakest and dramatic parts of the moor so as to end up in Ashburton where I found Charlotte at the hairdresser. An unusual place to meet, but otherwise I would have missed her altogether.
Charlotte Faulkner, a formidable woman, with a beautiful natural presence. Her hands tell the story of hard work, not spoiled with fancy garden gloves.
Hair wet, with the hairdresser quietly working away, she explained, how some charities for whatever reason took offence to her contraception project and drug her into an unjust and undeserved investigation.
After having done endless thorough research, Charlotte was given the official permission to inject the mares with a dart gun without needing to have a veterinarian present. Why these charities found it necessary to demand a ‘government agency investigation’ against a scheme already having proven to be successful, Charlotte doesn't really go into that. She clearly is still very angry but does not want to lower herself to wild accusations.
Charlotte paid for her own defence, but the point is... she won!
BACK TO THE PILL BUT SLOW PROGRESS
So the 'pill project' has been started up yet again but it's slow go. Sadly, through this wearing and messy investigation, many hill farmers and owners got scared off. It has given the pony community more exposure than these people, of whom many live a lonely life, cared for. Charlotte will have to work hard to convince as many as possible to join the scheme again.
And this is why the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association has now launched the scheme to let the youngsters live up to 3 years-old before a decision is made about their future. Yes, some will still have to be culled, but if at least their meat is used, they have had three good years and not died for nothing. Also, it gives Charlotte the chance to oversee their well-being during transport and at a small local abattoir, where the promise was made that the ponies will be received early, when all is still quiet, so as to make the process quick and as little invasive as possible.
THE TRAGEDY OF A DRIVEN WOMAN
Charlotte told me, and I could read the sadness in her eyes, that it never was, nor will be, the goal of the organisation to produce ponies for meat. Only, it is a temporary measure to cover the time it takes for the contraception project to become generally accepted. This had not been necessary if she had not been stopped in the first place.
And of course there will be foals...only not too many!
GET RID OF THE STALLIONS
Yes, why not get rid of the stallions, some say? Dartmoor is a vast country with a difficult terrain. No matter how well you tried, there will always be a clever little colt (like the little one in the picture having a pee) hiding behind a big boulder of granite in order to bounce from behind just at the right time in spring and do his fruitful job.
Charlotte said, 'really, to decrease the amount of foals, it would have to be the other way around; very few mares and lots of stallions.'
LEGENDS, ROMANCE AND DRAMA HAND IN HAND
Somewhere I read that in the 16th century Henry VIII wanted to get rid of any horse under 15 hands, because they would not be able to carry the heavy armour. This caused for the farmers to let lose any small horse they had on the moorland where hopefully they would be safe. This was part of the evolution of the Dartmoor Hill Pony.
In the story my great friend Brian Webber, farrier and born and bred on Dartmoor, told me, romance and drama meet yet again.
'In the sixties, during one of the fiercest winters Dartmoor has ever known, the hill farmers were not able to reach their ponies for weeks because of the vast amount of snow. When finally the thaw kicked in, they found circles of dead ponies.'
'The older ponies had circled the little ones in order to keep them warm, but in their desire to save them their feet had frozen to the ground.'
Brian was a great story teller; whenever he was shoeing my horses he would just tell tales, often about life on Dartmoor, which made me love it even more…
A HELPING HAND
These days, not only the quad bikes help to reach these little survivors when the going gets tough. Social media also plays its part. On Facebook I saw a post for donations of hay this winter, when the moor was not anymore able to supply anything decent.
But the ‘Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony’ need more. All volunteers pay their own costs; every penny they get goes straight to the ponies.
I have done my best to give you my story and I so hope you will want to help SJ and Charlotte and all those other wild pony lovers who dedicate their time and endless effort to keep the hill ponies happy.
It is because of them that we can enjoy a day, or a weekend, or more in this soul haunting piece of ancient countryside, Dartmoor.
Top picture: Dartmoor Hill Ponies near Princetown
Second picture: Chloe and Rosie on Evie and Lily
Third picture: a little colt recovering after castration
Fourth picture: this tiny thing, having a pee, could probably next year's rascal covering the entire neighbourhood!
Bottom picture: one of SJ's stunning pictures
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About Liz Barclay
Her love for horses together with her dedication made her into the trainer and dressage rider she is, today. She is versatile and inventive and likes a challenge; whether it is a technical training question, a confidence issue or a problem involving the management of the horse or pony.
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