On Chailey Common
by Ruth Lawrence
The introduction of grazing Exmoor ponies on Chailey Common is a welcome sight, and ideal for keeping the heathland under control.
It was a languid evening in late summer, no breeze, no sound save the faint chirring of hidden grasshoppers. Chailey Common seemed empty but on skirting a corner of pale silver birches, I caught the unexpected sight of a small herd of Exmoor ponies grazing a large clearing. Coloured brown, bay or dun, they blend easily into bracken, heather and gorse and their characteristic ‘mealy’ muzzle and ‘toad’ eye (prominent flesh around the eye to protect it from harsh weather) make them easy to identify.
Native to their namesake land many miles west, I was surprised to see these stocky, hardy ponies here; later I discovered that their presence is down to the Sussex Pony Grazing Conservation Trust, who provide the ponies to graze protected, rare heath, preventing it returning to an overgrown state.
Exmoor ponies are the UK’s oldest native equine breed and the closest pure descendent from ponies that inhabited this country 100,000 years ago; they remain one of the purest equine examples in existence. They lived alongside mammoths and sabre toothed tigers, and remain tough animals today with short ears to keep out rain, large nostrils and a long face to warm the winter air. Their winter coat has two layers, making them impervious to snow and cold. They have a long, thick tail with short hairs on top to act as a water chute while tough, neat hooves cope with hard or wet terrain.
Small, with an average height of 12.1 hands high (a ‘hand’ is four inches), they are perfectly suited to living in this environment of poor soils and ground prone to bogginess. Capable of thriving on poor forage, gorse, rush and bramble, the ponies trample bracken to open up the sward.
Exmoor ponies are classed as endangered – there are only about 2,000 individuals in the world. At the end of World War II they were rarer than the giant panda after they’d been used for food and target practice while their owners were away at war, but thankfully their unique and special qualities have been recognized and they are now a part of the Sussex landscape because of the grazing programme.
A total of 80 ponies, broken into smaller herds now graze ecologically important sites including Chailey Common, which at 450 acres is one of the largest areas of lowland heath in South East England. The project is always keen to recruit volunteer ‘lookers’, an old English term meaning “one who watches over” to check the pony’s welfare and the condition of gates, fences and water troughs and funds are always needed for vets, trailers, fencing and transport.
The ponies seemed the perfect addition to the landscape; as I sat for a while, the sound of them nibbling the grass, snorting and slowly moving across the clearing was a comforting feeling, their presence a welcome surprise in an unfamiliar place.