The ponies killed by kindness (1998)

(The Independent, 24 October 1998)

The number of Dartmoor ponies has dwindled from 50,000 to 2,000 in the last 50 years. Is it because we are loving them to death, asks Richard Askwith?

YOU CAN wander for miles across central Dartmoor without seeing anything your ancestors couldn’t have seen. There’s an air of heavy permanence about the livestock, too: a stationary beast, impassively chomping the turf as it might have done 1,000 years ago, can seem more solid than the swirling slopes around it. The easiest way to get lost in the mist is to take your bearings from a distant animal, mistaking it for a rock.

The ponies seem most solid of all. Stocky, shaggy, placid and hardy, they have lived on Dartmoor since 2,000BC. Today, however, they are flirting with extinction. In the past 50 years, their numbers have fallen catastrophically, from about 40,000 to scarcely 3,000; and the farmers who own them, along with the authorities in charge of Dartmoor National Park, fear that the decline is accelerating. Pure-bred Dartmoor ponies are numbered in hundreds, and earlier this year were officially declared “vulnerable” by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. And now things have got worse.

This month, Dartmoor’s 100 or so remaining pony-keepers have been learning just how catastrophically the bottom has fallen out of their market. At Chagford and Ashburton markets earlier this month some foals were fetching as little as pounds 2 each – less than the price of a hamster in a local pet- shop. They weren’t the lowest prices ever, but they showed that last year’s prices (which were) weren’t just a temporary blip. It was, as several farmers bitterly pointed out, scarcely worth taking the animals to market.  “It’s a joke,” said Philip Cleave, who keeps ponies around Holne. “You couldn’t buy two bales of hay for the prices we’ve been getting.” One auctioneer spoke of his pony sales having crashed from about pounds 11,000 ten years ago to just over pounds 2,000. Others spoke of the need for a cull.

The slump has been several years coming, but this year the matter has achieved national urgency, following the media’s discovery that some ponies sold at the markets end up as food for lions in zoos. For the ponies, of course, it makes little difference if they end up as lion-meat, petfood, steak for human consumption, or just ash in an incinerator. Local and national tabloids, however, have been deafening in their outrage that, as the Daily Mail put it, “what was once a priceless part of our heritage” could “end up as a slab of meat in the freezer of a safari park”. Prices have been inflated by soft-hearted outsiders buying ponies to save them from being “fed to the lions”.

In fact, zoos, like pet food makers, are probably buying less pony meat than before, since the market is awash with dirt-cheap meat from other livestock.  But the chorus of disapproval has served both to draw attention to the ponies’ predicament and, unintentionally, to illustrate its real nature. For the curious thing is that much of this sad decline is attributable not to a lack of human sensitivity to these creatures’ gentle charm, but to an excess of it.

Dartmoor’s ponies have earned their keep in many ways over the years.  They have traditionally been sold as working ponies, as pets and as food, for animals and humans. They’ve also been popular as polo ponies, and, until the Sixties, as transport for Dartmoor Prison warders. But it’s been demand for pony-meat that has kept Dartmoor’s pony-keepers in business for the past 50 years. During the Second World War, and immediately after, much of this demand came from people – British people. After rationing ended, our consumption of horse-flesh fell rapidly – and the population of Dartmoor ponies slowly followed. Yet a steady export market remained to Europe’s horse-eating nations – France, Italy and the Benelux countries.  It wasn’t a lucrative trade, but it meant that, as other uses fell away, ponies were still worth farmers’ while. Then came animal rights. In 1969, pressure from horse welfare organisations led to the introduction of “minimum value” regulations that effectively prohibited the live export of ponies for human consumption. This damaged demand – the continentals prefer their “cheval” freshly slaughtered – and caused a temporary crisis on the moor, with large numbers of unsaleable ponies being returned to a moor which, thanks to demands for grazing from other livestock, could no longer support them. By the Eighties, however, the population had settled down again.  Increased affluence had expanded demand for ponies for riding, and a modest but consistent export trade survived in pre-slaughtered pony meat. Many farmers found that they could earn more with ponies that were interbred with other breeds, producing “impure” ponies with piebald or skewbald colouring. Not only were these considered prettier by those who bought ponies for riding; they were also larger, and thus had more meat on them.

In 1986 Britain exported 4,290 tonnes of horsemeat – worth nearly pounds 5.5m – to the horse-eating countries. But fears that the single European market would lead to a revival of the live export trade re-focused animal-lovers’ attention on the fate of the ponies at the annual markets. As it happened, that particular threat was averted. But public concern remained aroused, and the pony meat trade found itself under unprecedented pressure. It became a standard trick in the tabloid reporter’s repertoire to go to a pony market and “rescue” a “loveable Dartmoor pony” from the evil meat- traders. Some pet-owners became alarmed at the thought that they might be feeding pony to their cats and dogs; some pet-food manufacturers found it profitable to list the pony-free contents of their tins on the labels.  “A lot of meat dealers just walked away,” says Cleave. “They weren’t making any money, there were cameras and campaigners at every market – what was the point?” The current crisis is the result. There’s an annual demand for perhaps 200 ponies from Dartmoor for riding; yet each year 1,000-odd ponies are brought to market.

The BSE crisis boosted demand for British horsemeat on the continent, and one brave Englishman even tried opening a specialist horsemeat butchers near Birmingham. Animal rights campaigners made sure that it didn’t catch on.

Today, Britain exports a mere 2,405 tonnes of horsemeat annually, worth around pounds 4m. It is unlikely that more than a tiny fraction comes from Dartmoor: connoisseurs of cheval may prefer the taste of a pony that has roamed free, but there’s more meat on a racehorse.

Meanwhile, the collapse in livestock prices has flooded the pet-food market with otherwise unsaleable meat. Even at pounds 2, a scrawny little pony – which has to be slaughtered in expensively humane conditions – is uncompetitively priced. And so Dartmoor’s hill-farmers, already reeling from the general farming crisis, wonder how much longer they can postpone the day when they stop keeping ponies altogether. It doesn’t cost much to keep a pony on Dartmoor, but a few bales of hay and the odd vet’s bill soon wipe out any profits, and loss-making ponies take up grazing that could be used by subsidised sheep and cows.

Several organisations – including the Dartmoor National Park Authority, the Duchy of Cornwall and the Dartmoor Pony Society – have suggested that the best hope for the future is to reduce the number of ponies on the moor still further and gradually purify the breed, to produce an animal that is more saleable to the riding market. A pedigree Dartmoor foal can fetch several hundred pounds from enthusiasts, and there have been two schemes in the past 10 years designed to encourage the breeding of purer stock.

But many of those whose livelihoods involve the ponies are less convinced.  “It’s not what the trade wants,” says Cleave. “We’ve been encouraged to breed a more old-fashioned pony, but the trade wants something prettier, for riding, or something bigger, for meat. So we’re left with something no one wants.”

The simplest strategy might be to let the ponies’ numbers decline to a level sustainable in market conditions. But even that will only be achieved by slaughtering more ponies; and, in any case, a sustainable level might be much lower than the public could tolerate.

“There’s 35,000 hectares of common land on Dartmoor,” says John Weir.  “Ponies just disappear. You could have a herd of a few hundred and people would think there were no ponies at all.” If that happened, the Dartmoor National Park Authority would be deemed to have failed in its statutory duty to maintain the area’s cultural traditions – and the media, inevitably, would be up in arms about our not caring enough about our loveable Dartmoor ponies.

Dartmoor’s ponies don’t want for sympathisers. The difficulty is translating that good will into useful action. Indeed, there are many who think that public sympathy has contributed to the problem.

“They always used to go for slaughter, for export and for mines,” says John Shears, who keeps about 20 ponies near Moretonhampstead. “The mines stopped, and all the do-gooders stopped the export. So that just leaves slaughter. And now they don’t even want us to do that.” “It’s a wicked shame,” says John Hodge, a hill farmer from Okehampton. “A lot of people started trying to do good, and it’s been going downhill ever since.” “Many people would say that the do-gooders have done for the ponies,” says Cleave.

“It’s just old-fashioned British sentimentality,” says Tim Garrett, of Rendalls auctioneers in Chagford. “I have a slogan,” he adds: “‘Eat horsemeat – it’s good for the ponies.’ The farmers don’t dare say it, but it’s the truth. If people in this country would eat horsemeat, the ponies would be kept longer, there’d be more of them, they’d live longer. They’d be looked after and fattened up when they came off the moor, and then they’d be humanely killed.”

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