Hairy visitors to nature reserve

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FIVE EXMOOR ponies will spend their summer at the RSPB’s Broadwater Warren nature reserve near Crowborough.

Over the next six months, the hairy visitors will graze their way through grasses, birch, bramble and gorse across the reserve to help restore heathland which lost over the last 60 years.

The ponies belong to The Sussex Pony Grazing and Conservation Trust and spend winters on the South Downs, helping to control rank grasses. In spring the ponies are taken off the Downs to allow the spring downland flowers to flourish. Their visit to the heaths of the High Weald is effectively their summer holiday.

The ponies’ introduction to the reserve has been made possible thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund through the Weald Forest Ridge Landscape Partnership Scheme, SITA Trust and The Veolia Environmental Trust.

Steve Wheatley, RSPB site manager for Broadwater Warren, said: “Grazing is an important and valuable element of heathland management with a long history in the High Weald. Exmoor Ponies fulfil this role superbly. They get stuck in straight away and they also look perfect in the High Weald landscape.”

The animals are ‘semi-wild’ and have free rein within a 150 acre grazing area. Whilst enjoying a varied natural diet, they tend to eat around the heather, which enables it to grow unhindered. Ponies’ and horses’ teeth point forwards which means they can graze as closely as rabbits and be very selective about what they eat.

The ponies must be checked each day, so the RSPB has worked with the Trust to recruit and train a team of volunteers to help. Each ‘looker’ visits the reserve on a nominated day each month.

Grazier Monty Larkin of the Trust said: “It’s very basic stuff, making sure that there is nothing obviously wrong. It’s the sort of thing regular visitors can do during their normal walk”.  Monty also checks on the ponies regularly.

Exmoor Ponies were first introduced to the High Weald heathlands in 2004 at the radio station on Ashdown Forest. Following a very successful trial season they were introduced to Old Lodge Nature Reserve which is managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust, and the MOD land at Pippingford Park.

The ponies are used to grazing on sites with public access and will generally ignore people, dogs and ridden horses. They are already co-existing well with the ground-nesting woodlarks which returned to Broadwater Warren this year. However they are still ‘wild’ animals and people are asked not to approach them and to resist the urge to feed them.