As we drive out of our village towards the motorway for another of our trips to TV land, we get a lovely view of the high tors of Dartmoor in the distance. For quite a few weeks in January, the tors were covered in snow, as was much of the moorland area and the communities within it.
One of the many attractions of this beautiful area are the Dartmoor ponies that roam the moorland alongside grazing cattle and sheep. They are incredibly sweet and you will often see young foals by the road, barely able to stand on their ludicrously long legs, with their hugely round mothers watching protectively nearby.
They are hardy animals and, unless snow cover is very deep and prolonged, they manage to forage quite well. Contrary to what most people think, the ponies on Dartmoor are not truly wild animals. They are all owned by farmers, who let them out on to the commons to graze for most of the year and this is where most visitors to Dartmoor come across them.
They are an integral part of the moorland landscape and are a part of the area’s cultural heritage and important for conservation grazing.
Dartmoor National Park is home to the native breed Dartmoor Pony. But not all the ponies on Dartmoor look the same. Importing other breeds has created various colours and shapes and some of them are absolutely gorgeous – I’ve seen a spotted one, just like a Dalmation!
The ponies live out on the moor all year round. They spend most of the time in small herds of mares with one adult stallion and young ponies. Local farmers who keep ponies get together to clear ponies off their particular common. These round ups are called ‘drifts’ and are held in late September and early October. Once, driving across the moor to Tavistock, we came across a drift, and stopped to watch. What a magical sight it was as all these ponies streamed down across the hillside, crossing the road in front of us, and then down to the collecting pens.
Once in the pens, ponies are separated into groups according to ownership. The health of all the animals is checked, and treatment is given where appropriate. After the drifts pony keepers decide which ponies to sell. The rest are returned to the moor until the following year. And so the cycle continues…