Cull awaits the Dartmoor ponies that no one wants

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The Independent Online

The ponies that have roamed Dartmoor for 2,000 years are being culled because no one wants them.

The ponies that have roamed Dartmoor for 2,000 years are being culled because no one wants them.

Fifty years ago, there was a herd of 30,000 ponies which were used as pack animals in tin mines and for taking wool to market. Now the number has slipped to just 3,000 and the remaining animals are finding their usefulness diminishing. About 200 ponies are expected to be killed this winter because they are valueless.

Farmers on Dartmoor in south Devon breed the ponies and allow them to run free on the moorland to keep down grass and shrubs in the national park. Although they wander around untamed and untrained, each animal is owned by one of 85 farmers. Come the winter they are rounded up en masse in the "pony drifts" and returned to their owners.

Most of the male foals are sent to market to prevent fights breaking out between stallions who wish to control a herd. Also sent for auction are old ponies, who are spared the prospect of another bleak winter on the moors.

But the animals can no longer be used for dog food because of a European directive and they are less sought after as pets. Although farmers only entered their best stock at recent markets at Tavistock and Chagford, a number of animals remain unsold. A minimum asking price of £8 was placed to discourage "rescue" buyers who bid as little as 50p for a pony but cannot afford to pay for their upkeep.

As a result the Dartmoor Commoners' Council, which represents all those who have a right to graze livestock on the moor, is organising a cull.

It will be carried out in agreement with the RSPCA. Janet Kipling, the south-west spokeswoman for the charity, said culling was the only option in the short term. "There were some foals that didn't sell. They can't go back on the moor. It is against the regulations," she said."Disposal at a licensed premises humanely is the best option for these animals." John Weir, of the Dartmoor National Park Authority, said culling was necessary if there was no market demand. "There is no point having thousands of ponies on Dartmoor because we would get a major welfare issue," he said.

Maurice Retallick, a Dartmoor commoner who farms near Newton Abbot, said an abundance of winter food meant fewer ponies would be culled than last year, when foot-and-mouth regulations were in force.

"This happens as a last resort as a result of farmers not having the food or space to look after them," he said.

Maureen Rolls, of the campaign group South West Equine Protection, accused farmers of breeding too many ponies. "What is the point of breeding them if they're going to be shot?" she said.The pressure group is calling for stallions to be taken off the moor to control breeding of the herds.

Other possible remedies include a scheme to control the number of stallions on the moor and promote trekking to provide work for the ponies.

Dartmoor National Park Authority is in talks with officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on providing maintenance subsidies for farmers who own ponies.