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Dartmoor ponies by Robyn Petrie-RitchieThe Dartmoor Society Research Lecture 2014

Robyn Petrie-Ritchie: ‘Pony Herds and Management on Dartmoor – New Observations’

A record 98 persons eagerly assembled in the Dolphin Hotel, Bovey Tracey on 31 October 2014. Robyn was born and bred on Dartmoor and now farms with her partner Steve Alford near Throwleigh. She has a BA Masters Degree in Equine Science and recently completed her Research Masters MSc thesis on the ponies of Dartmoor at Duchy College/Plymouth University.

For her research Robyn spent literally hours on the moor observing groups of ponies in all winds and weathers to acquire data relating to equine birth control which is a key issue on Dartmoor. She commented that although the market for ponies has changed dramatically in recent years (due to new laws relating to export etc) management practice has essentially remained the same. Her study combined interviews with pony keepers with close observation of the behaviour of ponies.

Hoof prints of ponies on Dartmoor dating to around 1600 BC were found in excavations on Shaugh Moor in the late 1970s. A cast was made of them (now in Plymouth Museum) and Robyn’s measurements revealed that they are the same size as those of her own ponies today.

There are three key types of pony on Dartmoor:

Fifty-one farmers / pony keepers from all areas of Dartmoor were interviewed, including a mix of Hill Pony, Registered and Heritage pony breeders within the sample. A semi-structured interview was used by Robyn with a dictaphone. Valid and reliable data was obtained from respondents.

Ninety-two per cent of her interviewees recommended that management practice needed to change. Sixty-nine per cent were in favour of stallion removal, twenty-one per cent were against stallion removal and ten per cent were unsure.

Among suggestions and opinions were:

A few breeders suggested that there should be a ‘clear period’ for ponies on Dartmoor just as there is for cows and sheep, when all ponies would be required to be removed between certain dates. This action would allow for management such as worming to take place and to make sure that all animals had been removed.

Some pony keepers raised concerns over what effect stallion removal will have on the behaviour of the herds, with changes in behaviour potentially impacting upon the livestock and ecology of the moor. In 2011 the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council had conducted their own survey which showed that 76% were in favour of stallion removal for a structured period (e.g. two years) and 23% were not in favour of this idea.

For her behavioural study, Robyn observed three distinct pony groups:

  1. a herd of mares ‘on the pill’, running in an enclosed area with a vasectomised stallion.
  2. a herd of mares with no stallion.
  3. a herd of mares on the contraceptive drug Improvac®, running with a proven stallion. Although the drug was trialled on the ponies it is not yet fully licensed for use in equines.

There were some key questions relating to each group. In Group A

The mares that were ‘on the pill’ running with a vasectomised stallion had fewer foals. However, some foals were born because the owner had intentionally covered some mares off the moor with their own stallion.

In Group B

The mares living without a stallion in general didn't leave their lairs which proved that a stallion is not necessary to keep the mares in certain areas. However, there was still a problem with unwanted foals because they were covered by other people’s stallions.

In Group C

With this group where the mare was on Improvac® and running with a proven stallion, the vasectomised stallion did maintain his body condition and the herd displayed normal behaviours.

The practice of sterilisation means there is a danger of losing all the genetics in the group. With mare contraception there can be several inconsistencies, especially if continuity is broken with incorrect timescales of administering the drug.

Robyn’s research results clearly supported the view that there should be a policy of NO BREEDING ON OPEN COMMONS and she felt that the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council should initiate removal of stallions from the commons. However, this may be hard to implement and there are still many issues to address, but there is little reason not to encourage such a change. Benefits would include:

Robyn hoped that her work will be used as a catalyst for discussion and as a basis of scientific evidence to underpin a management system suited to all breeders, in order to ensure that a physically and behaviourally healthy equid population is maintained on Dartmoor without unwanted foals.

In questions, Angela Plummer asked if there was a law that required farmers to follow specific duties and actions regarding ponies on the moor. Robyn said that this was a frequently asked question and added that the majority of farmers do whatever they can but that there are no specific legal obligations.

Dru Butterfield was interested in the views of the 8% of the 51 interviewed pony keepers who did not want management change. Robyn said this was well worth further study.

Roderick Newbolt-Young congratulated Robyn on her findings. He felt that all significant pony organisations should have a copy of her report and that the information it contained should be disseminated widely in the public domain.

Roger Claxton enquired about the cost implications of the vasectomy injection. Robyn replied that the operation for the vasectomy costs £250.00 and that this cost had normally been met by the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust who paid the majority of the sum with the owners only having to pay £50.00 plus VAT.

Tom Greeves said that Sam Goodwin, who unfortunately was unable to attend the event, had suggested that reducing the number of mares might be beneficial. Robyn commented that this had been happening to some extent with some of the older mares reduced in number, and that this would ultimately affect the lairs.

Simon Booty observed that in his experience there is a logistical problem getting stallions off the moor. A major concern was the possibility of losing bloodlines.

It was also asked why the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council currently allows each pony keeper to keep a maximum of five stallions out on the moor. Mary Alford, Vice-Chairman of the Commoners’ Council said that in her opinion it would be a tragedy if stallions were removed from Dartmoor. She added that some pony keepers have up to five different lairs/lears and this is why pony keepers are allowed a maximum of five stallions each.

Tom Greeves summed up the evening by thanking Robyn for her excellent and clearly presented lecture which was full of interesting material. He drew particular attention to Robyn’s comment that although markets had changed, the management of the ponies themselves had not, and he felt this was the crux of the matter. He reminded everyone that the Dartmoor Society Research Fund exists to support work such as Robyn’s and that the Society would always welcome donations to the fund.

He also thanked Robert and his staff at the Dolphin Hotel, Elisabeth Greeves for her help with merchandise sales etc, Tanya and Barry Welch for their contributions to the smooth running of the event, and everyone for attending. During an excellent buffet, there was plenty of time for people to continue wide-ranging discussion.

Photo: Courtesy Robyn Petrie-Ritchie.

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