Outdoors: Exmoor ponies are transforming the way grassland is managed in East Lothian

THE volcanic whaleback hump of Traprain Law looms above us, its 221m-high summit shrouded in mist.

THE volcanic whaleback hump of Traprain Law looms above us, its 221m-high summit shrouded in mist.

As we clamber through the long grass towards the remains of an Iron Age fort on the plateau, the modern world seems far away. We don’t have to walk a great distance before we spot the creatures we have come to see.

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Standing on this rugged outcrop, we could be in Paleolithic times – the five sturdy ponies tearing at the grass before us could have modelled for the cave paintings at Lascaux. Despite being the most recent arrivals on this East Lothian hill, these Exmoor ponies belong to a breed recorded in 1086 in the Domesday Book and are believed to be the closest living relative of Europe’s original wild horses.

Today a sixth pony, Firtree, is being introduced to the founding members of this Scottish herd, established as part of a conservation grazing initiative by East Lothian Council. Ponies have been brought in to act as selective grass-cutters that will allow species of endangered wildlife regain a foothold and hopefully flourish in the long term.

Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and in partnership with conservation charity Plantlife’s Saving Our Magnificent Meadows project, the grazing scheme aims to halt the crippling decline of the area’s grasslands. Only two per cent of the habitat that existed in the UK in the 1930s remains today, and less than seven per cent of that is in Scotland. East Lothian still has some of the country’s most important, species-rich grasslands, though a quarter has been lost since the 1940s through farming, urban development and the spread of coastal golf courses. It is hoped the project will help safeguard species such as sheep’s sorrel and crosswort, and encourage ground-nesting birds to breed in the area.

Heading up a three-year grazing scheme, Duncan Priddle, countryside officer at ELC, says using ponies as grazers sparked his interest because the sheep that had been parachuted in (yes, literally, known as the Flying Flock) “weren’t interacting very well” with dogs being let off leads in the area. The ponies are not domesticated, so keep their distance from walkers, and require little maintenance. “They do need day-to-day observation,” says Duncan, “but they can be pretty much left to do their own thing.”

Exmoors were chosen ahead of native Scottish breeds because their small stature and hardiness make them ideally suited to living on the hill through even the harshest winter without extra food. “We won’t need to provide additional food, which is quite important since their job here is to graze the grass to an appropriate level. It’s a robust beast that will look after itself and it can be here all year round with little direct maintenance.”

The ponies are on loan from the Moorland Mousie Trust, a charity that takes in unwanted males from breeding herds in Exmoor and gives them the chance of a useful life. The trust’s Juliet Rogers says: “Because they’re small they have very little damage impact on the land, whereas maybe a heavier breed, like the Highland, could do that,” she says.

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It’s important any negative effects on the land is kept to a minimum because Traprain Law is a scheduled monument. Duncan stresses that care has to be taken with the type of animal allowed to roam free on the hill. “It can graze and do a little bit of disturbance but if it starts to break up the soil profiles then it will actually affect the archaeological story of the site,” he says.

Numerous species are expected to benefit from the scheme, including plants that have virtually vanished from the area. “By reducing the degree of coarse grass, you can take it right down to the bees, bugs that aren’t getting a chance, and plant species – things such as wood sage, heath bedstraw, wild thyme – the sort of upland plants that really will not cope well if they get swamped by tall grasses,” Duncan says. “As for animals, birds particularly will appreciate it, “meadow pipits, skylarks and the like.”

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Using animals, not machinery, to control grass is not only greener (they eat the byproduct while fertilising the ground), it’s less intrusive. “Anyone walking here loves the fact that these ponies are peacefully grazing the hill. They don’t want someone standing up here with a great big strimming machine,” says Julia.”

Hopefully, other land managers will adopt grazing schemes to help restore the country’s natural grasslands. ELC is implementing conservation initiatives in three further sites as part of the UK-wide Plantlife project. “But the people side is fundamental,” Duncan says. “There’s an obvious interest in looking at nice animals, and that’s what we want to do, encouraging volunteers to get involved.”

To get involved with the conservation scheme, contact Duncan Priddle ([email protected]); Moorland Mousie Trust (www.moorlandmousietrust.org.uk); Plantlife (www.plantlife.org.uk)