Wild Welsh ponies to the rescue at Bickerton Hill

Wild Welsh ponies are galloping to the rescue of endangered heathland at Bickerton Hill<br/>PHOTOGRAPHY BY HILARY KEHOE

Rare ponies from the mountains of North Wales have been enlisted to help save some of Cheshire’s most valuable habitat for future generations.

The National Trust, working with the Habitats and Hillforts Landscape Partnership Project, has introduced a herd of rare Welsh mountain ponies from Carneddau in North Wales onto Bickerton Hill to help halt the spread of birch trees which threaten the future of rare heathland habitat there.

Bickerton Hill is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and provides a home for many rare or threatened animals and plants, including lizards, adders and birds of prey. The heath is considered to be the best of its kind in the county.

Dave Morris, the Trust’s warden at Bickerton Hill said: ‘Sadly, lowland heath like that which we have here at Bickerton is disappearing faster than the rainforests: nearly half of this type of habitat has vanished in the last 50 years.

We’ve been working over the last decade to restore the hill’s original heathland which was lost when heathland grazing stopped in the 1930s. This allowed pine, oak and particularly birch saplings to flourish, so it’s a constant battle to keep the saplings at bay – and that’s where the ponies come in.’

 ‘We’ve had cattle on the hill for a number of years, but we felt ponies would be well suited to this kind of conservation grazing and compliment the grazing of the cattle. The ponies tend to be less fussy eaters than cattle and will tackle older saplings – making them more efficient at keeping the birch down.

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Left unchecked, the birch trees would quickly colonise the heath and the canopy cast by the mature trees would kill off the heather, along with much of the wildlife that depends on it for food and shelter. Natural England, the government’s advisory agency is also fully supportive of the introduction of pony grazing on the hill, as the cattle have struggled to graze the re-generating birch sufficiently over the last few years. Ponies grazing the site will allow the specialised heath land plants such as heather and bilberry to flourish.’

The ponies have been supplied by AGAP – the Anglesey Grazing Animals Partnership. Hilary Kehoe, AGAP’s Local Grazing Scheme Co-Ordinator said: ‘AGAP works to link farmers and graziers  - who can supply suitable grazing stock -  with organisations and landowners to establish sustainable grazing on conservation sites and wildlife-rich landscapes in Anglesey and beyond.  We’re delighted to have been able to assist the National Trust at Bickerton Hill, and are sure the ponies will make a real contribution to helping conserve this rare heathland landscape.’

Ellie Soper from the Habitats and Hillforts Landscape Partnership Project which has helped fund the project said: ‘This is a really exciting project to be involved in. The heath on Bickerton Hill is an important habitat within Cheshire’s Sandstone Ridge landscape, correct management is key to its sustainability.’

The Carneddau ponies will be non-breeding so there will be no loose stallions or mares with young foals. Although tough and used to living outside all year long, the animals are naturally timid and won’t be attracted to people or horse riders.

Essentially wild, they will be fed when necessary, for example when there is snow on the ground by Trust staff who will also give medication when required, but the ponies are not tame, so visitors to Bickerton are asked not to try and feed them, and dog walkers should keep their pets under control. The ponies will be grazing the same area of the hill which cattle have done in the past. 

About Carneddau Welsh mountain ponies

The Carneddau Mountain range in North Wales is home to a small population of semi-feral Welsh ponies whose history is thought to date back to the Bronze Age. They are slightly smaller in stature than the Section A Welsh Mountain standing at around 10 to 11 hands high, they are hardy with a sturdy body, small ears shaped like sage leaves and big personalities!

This herd, numbering around 300 ponies in total, is owned and managed by a group of farmers from Bethesda and Llanfairfechan who have formed the Carneddau Pony Society, they are supported through a management agreement with the Countryside Council for Wales that helps them to maintain the herd, benefitting wildlife on the mountains through grazing. The ponies graze differently from sheep, their grazing and trampling help to keep bracken and gorse under control, create pathways and maintain the landscape of the mountains.

I work for PONT as the grazing coordinator for the Anglesey Grazing Animals Partnership which helps to manage land to promote wildlife through grazing; I also have a farm and run sheep on the Carneddau so I have always enjoyed seeing the ponies on the common.

They are great for the grazing scheme too because they are ideal for managing land for conservation being able to eat coarse grass, produce dung to benefit birds and insects and don’t bother the public. I am very keen to preserve the breed - I can see how they work for conservation and how vital their role is in the cultural heritage of the area and preserving the uplands.

Hilary KehoeAnglesey Grazing Animals’ Partnership

How you can help

The National Trust wants to recruit a team of volunteer ‘lookers’ to check the condition of the ponies and to monitor and report on their health and welfare. Anyone interested in helping should contact Dave Morris at Bickerton on 07831 561588 or 01829 782725.

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