Wednesday, 30 October 2013

An ancient breed

Last month we took a really long drive down to the South of England, to the county of Devon. In Devon are the large areas of wild and bleak moors called Exmoor and Dartmoor.  Both of these areas are home to large numbers of wild roaming ponies - the Dartmoor pony and the Exmoor pony - both completely separate breeds.

First I will write about the Exmoor ponies, as they are the oldest of the two breeds.  They are actually a very ancient breed - they have descended from the indigenous British Hill type pony, without too much inter breeding with other breeds.  You can see they have a very ancient look about them:

 Exmoor pony

They were first domesticated by the Celts when they came to Britain, and they trained them to pull their chariots. The first written records of ponies on Exmoor are in the Doomsday book, when Exmoor was designated a royal forest.  From the Doomsday Book onwards there is little written evidence of the Exmoor Pony but records from the 1500s onwards reveal that the equine population of the moor varied in numbers rising to as many as a thousand at times. The moors, as part of the Royal Forest, were controlled by wardens who ran native stallions there but it is known that non-Exmoor mares were sometimes allowed to roam with these herds.

Wild Exmoor pony

In 1818 the forest was sold and one of the wardens, Sir Thomas Acland took 30 ponies and founded the Acland herd (now known as the Anchor herd running on Winsford hill - which is where I spent the day photographing).  A few other farmers also took a few ponies and founded herds, some of which also still exist.

In 1921 the Exmoor pony society was founded to keep the breed pure and promote them.  For a while the ponies did really well, and were used as children's ponies, helping with shepherding, ploughing and grazing the commons, but during and after the war years the ponies had a rough time due to absent owners, moorland gates left open, trigger happy troops and butchers using them for a meat source during rationing.  In 1946 only about 50 ponies remained and only 6 pure-bred filly foals were registered for the whole of Exmoor.

Exmoor mum and baby

Thankfully Mary Etherington, a keen supporter of the breed, and a few other dedicated breeders saved the breed - cattle grids gradually replaced the gates and the boundaries to the commons were secured and the numbers gradually grew.  The numbers are still increasing,  now stand at around 3000 ponies worldwide.  This might sound a lot, but they are still on the Rare breeds survival trust's watch list as 'endangered' - only one up from 'critical'.  

Shy Exmoor yearling

Please click on any of the photos to see them larger.

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