Where Exmoor meets Leicestershire by Maureen Kishtaini
The stocky brown ponies looked familiar. With their broad faces, thick manes and tails, and the characteristic mealy markings around the eyes and muzzles, hadn’t I seen them years ago, freely roaming Exmoor? Yet I was miles away from Somerset and Devon, walking in the Cossington Meadows Nature Reserve, a stone’s throw from my home in Leicestershire. That first glimpse was an exciting but surprising moment. What were these ponies, seemingly free and unbroken, doing so far from their native home?
Running aside the reserve, the River Soar meanders near the villages of Cossington and Sileby as it makes its way to join the River Trent. Like so many rivers, it has been heavily exploited by industry, either as a useful dump for factory effluent, or as a source of gravel from the valley floor. For many years during the 80’s and 90’s, just alongside the village of Cossington, gravel extraction was a major industry, finally coming to an end in the late 90’s. Before the ground was finally abandoned, a number of pits and hollows were filled with brick waste, hardcore and some top soil whilst the remaining shallows were left to fill up naturally with water. As the Soar at this point frequently floods in winter, it wasn’t too long before the area became dotted with shallow scrapes and several larger pools. Unsuitable for agriculture or even housing. The Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust bought 80 hectares of the land in 2004 as a nature reserve and has been managing it ever since.
The aim of the Trust is to encourage a wide variety of wildlife birds, insects, butterflies and wild flowers and provide the habitat within which they can flourish. Walk through the reserve today and you will find a mix of vegetation from thick reed beds, ancient hedges, scrub and rough grassland. So why the ponies? Together with a small herd of Shetland cattle, the ponies provide a natural method of controlling vegetation, particularly the spread of insidious varieties such as willow scrub. In this way the biodiversity of the reserve is increased and maintained. Like the cattle, the ponies are extremely hardy and can withstand harsh winters outdoors as their thick winter coats give special protection - a woolly under layer and a top coat of long oily hair which helps divert the cold winter rains. Moreover they thrive on coarse vegetation such as thistles which other animals avoid.
The ponies were introduced into the reserve by the Trust in 2007. Initially, five free-roaming and untamed ponies were obtained straight from Exmoor itself. All were mares and fillies and as two were already in foal, the number on the reserve soon rose to seven. By 2010, it was decided to increase the number and after much searching for a pure-bred stallion, one was found locally at Gadesby, Leicestershire owned by Gemma Branson, an Exmoor breeder. As a result of this temporary loan, two foals were born, a filly and colt, bringing the total number of ponies to nine and with the job well done, the stallion was returned to Gadesby. As the ponies had so far been so successful in their job of well - just grazing, it was decided to purchase another three fillies from the same stable. Two extra colts were also ‘borrowed’ as temporary companions to the colt born on the reserve and which is being kept apart from the females until he is gelded.
How come I am so familiar with the history and head count of these ponies? Living so near to the reserve and enjoying walks there several times a week, I volunteered to be an ‘extra pair of eyes’, when the Trust Conservation Officers are not around. This simply entails checking that all the ponies are accounted for and that there is nothing amiss or odd about their appearance. The ponies are kept on the Lower, Middle and Upper Marsh areas, a fenced part of the reserve which is a mix of scrubby grassland, bushes, trees and several shallow pools. As the general public cannot enter nor the ponies escape, my binoculars are a vital piece of equipment and it is still a pleasure to see a faint brownish blob gradually immerge from behind a bush into a real live pony. Moreover I’ve learnt not to panic if I spot a pony lying down. ‘Only get worried if a horse or pony is lying well away from the others in the group’, I was informed by an expert. Both horses and ponies naturally keep guard whenever one of their group takes a rest in the sun or shade.
At the time of writing, the three colts are being kept in Swan Meadow, a large expanse of long grass which looks more like the Argentinian Pampas or the Hungarian Puszta than North Leicestershire. Even with binoculars, it is sometimes almost impossible to see them as they move amongst the long grass and bushes.
I haven’t been back to Exmoor for many years but I understand that owing to the hard work and passion of many conservationists, the ponies still roam the moors which they have inhabited for hundreds of years. But for now, I can admire and study the behaviour of those few that call the Cossington Meadows Nature Reserve their home.
Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust - Chris Hill Conservation Officer - Cossington Meadows
Tel.no: 0116 2720444
Gemma Branson Exmoor pony breeder
Tel.no: 01664 841243