Exmoor ponies recruited to graze and preserve land in Ashdown Forest

They were once in danger of becoming extinct, but now Exmoor ponies are helping to carry out vital conservation work in Sussex.

35 ponies, split into three herds, are being used to graze Ashdown Forest and improve the habitat for rare plants and wildlife.

The area can be a harsh place in winter but the ponies are tough enough to stay out throughout the season - as they can cope with extremes of temperature.

Sheep and cattle, also graze on the land in the warmer months but are taken off in the winter, to return in the spring.

Countryside Manager of Ashdown Forest, Ash Walmsley said: "They're our superstars.

"They are undertaking our conservation in the forest. They're maintaining valuable open areas that are so important for the valuable wildlife and the heathland habitat.

"They are fantastic they create bare ground, they punch holes through thick scrub and gorse and they eat and suppress them."

Although the ponies are extremely hardy, they do need to be checked regularly. A team of “Lookerers” monitor them every day.

The volunteers track the ponies in all weathers to ensure they are healthy and grazing the designated areas.

In the Ashdown Forest, husband and wife team Rob and Di Bright volunteer to look after them.

Rob Bright said: "We're lucky enough to be retired now. We've got a day a week that we can give here to help the animals.

"We come up one day a week to look out for them, make sure they're okay and the enclosures are secure.

"It's a good way of giving something back to the forest and gives us so much joy."

Di Bright added: "It's a lovely feeling and it's such a worthwhile thing to do, not just for the shepherds but for the forest as well."

Exmoor Ponies are a native British breed originally from Exmoor in Devon and Somerset.

According to The Exmoor Pony Society, the ponies came close to extinction during the Second World War when some were stolen for food.

A small group of breeders protected the remaining stock and in the 1950s some were exported to Europe and Canada.

Today the wild herds are protected and closely monitored to ensure the survival of the species and the purity of the gene pool.

There are estimated to be 500 wild ponies living on Exmoor and 3500 in locations across the UK and overseas.