You can now take a walk with the ponies of Dartmoor
- Credit: Malcolm Snelgrove
The Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust offers free guided walks at Bellever, where it runs an indigenous herd - SHARON GOBLE experienced a day out with a difference
The dark green expanse of the coniferous plantation at Bellever is an awesome sight, basking in sunshine and set against the soft golden tones of the high moor.
I couldn't have chosen a better day for my first ever walk in this wooded wonderland near Postbridge, at the heart of Dartmoor National Park.
My guides for the afternoon are Paul Rendell and Dru Butterfield of the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust and Dru’s chocolate Labrador, Belly. Joining us too is award-winning photographer and charity Patron Malcolm Snelgrove, whose beautiful images of Bellever and the ponies in their natural environment have led to a huge following on social media.
Dru co-founded the charity in 2005, inspired by internationally recognised Dartmoor Pony expert and breeder Elizabeth Newbolt-Young. Dru’s enthusiasm for these gorgeous animals is evident, along with her passion to secure a long-term future for them on the moor.
She says, “Conservation and education are at the heart of everything we do at the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust. We work tirelessly to create awareness of how integral the ponies are to the management of this landscape and to educate people about these hardy intelligent creatures who call Dartmoor their home.”
She adds, “The central tenet of our work is delivering education and conservation opportunities that allow young people and adults to learn about the crucial role this native breed plays in the ecology of the moor through their grazing. The guided walks we offer are one of the ways in which we do that.”
The Dartmoor Pony, of course, has long been an iconic symbol of this landscape. Less well known is the remarkable archaeology of this area, aside from the unmissable outcrops of granite tors.
Paul Rendell is a long-time conservation volunteer and an experienced guide with a wealth of knowledge about the moor’s flora, fauna and archaeology. Soon after setting off, we come across a large clearing in the forest, strewn with scattered boulders. “These are the remains of a Bronze Age village,” Paul explains. “Thousands of years ago a small community lived here in simple roundhouses. At that time the weather was more hospitable than it is now. People would have farmed and herded on the land.”
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Nearby a row of knee-height standing stones leads to a neat ‘box’ of flat upright stones with a ‘lid’ on top. Paul tells me it’s a Bronze Age burial chamber: “Unfortunately, it’s not quite how it would have looked originally. The Victorians excavated it, as they did lots of other sites on Dartmoor, and rebuilt it, rather too neatly.” It’s amazing to think that the prehistoric remains at Bellever are as old as the Egyptian pyramids, but this site is free to visit and accessible to everyone.
Some ordinary-looking wooden posts in the ground turn out to be more significant than they first appear. The posts - some of which are hung with salt licks to attract the ponies (whilst other ‘control posts’ have no licks) - are part of a conservation grazing research project the DPHT is undertaking with the University of Plymouth.
The project aims to assess the effectiveness of the ponies in controlling Molinia grass within heathland habitats to create conditions favourable to heather regeneration and greater species diversity. The results so far are promising, showing the herd is making more use of a less palatable section of the site than previously.
Later on in the walk, I catch up with Malcolm Snelgrove to find out about his involvement with the charity as a patron. He says, “For me, it’s a way of giving back. I first became involved with the DPHT supporting its Fresh Tracks programme, recording the personal journeys of young people with a range of life challenges participating in the Ten Tors challenge, accompanied by ponies.
“I photographed every stage of their journey from being taught map-reading and pony skills to how to erect a tent and pack their gear. We presented each of them with a book of photographs to mark their achievement in completing the challenge.”
He adds, “It’s fascinating recording the charity’s work and the way it benefits so many people through its equine-assisted learning programmes. By promoting the ponies’ role in conservation, my photos help to ensure a future for them here on Dartmoor, and elsewhere in the UK.”
I felt privileged to spot a few members of this important herd grazing nearby, direct descendants of a resilient breed that’s survived here alongside humans for millennia.
Hoofprints found on Dartmoor during an archaeological dig show ponies have lived on Dartmoor for over 3,500 years.
The first written records of ponies on Dartmoor were in AD 1012.
In the mid-1800s, Dartmoor Pack Ponies were used to transport tin, wool and granite to local stannary (trading) towns.
Walk with the ponies
Enjoy a free two- to three-hour guided walk on Bellever with your school, group or family. Find out why the hardy Dartmoor pony is integral to the management of the moorland landscape. You will also discover how Dartmoor was formed and how Bellever has changed over three million years through the influence of weathering and human activity.
The sessions are led by an experienced and qualified group leader who can tailor the material to the interests of your group (minimum six people). The walks are suitable for children of eight years and upwards and well-behaved dogs on a lead.