Hair samples from Dartmoor hill ponies to secure their future

A pioneering project aiming to shed greater light on the unique genetic make-up of Dartmoor’s iconic hill ponies and ultimately secure their future has got underway.

The Dartmoor Hill Pony Association and Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony charity have revealed they are working closely with Neogen Genomics and the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) based at Aberystwyth University to develop and pilot a new genetic testing procedure for the moor’s semi-wild pony herds.

Genetic information will be gleaned from samples of tail hair taken from selected ponies, with these samples analysed to establish their parentage.

The advance in testing comes on the back of an IBERS study which found that Dartmoor ‘Hillies’ have distinct genetics not seen in any other breed before – giving clues as to how they have evolved to survive and thrive in a harsh upland environment.

Charlotte Faulkner, who runs the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association and founded Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony, said the organisations are also working in consultation with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) and Weatherbys Scientific to bring this DNA testing to fruition.

“It’s working towards securing the future of the ponies on the moor,” she said. “They are disappearing, because of the legislative burden that is put upon them and the incentivisation to keep cattle and sheep instead.

“We have got to show that they are intrinsically valuable to our culture and our heritage, as well as the biodiversity of Dartmoor. They've probably been here since the dinosaurs, so it's just incredible.

“Because they are semi-wild, they will never have an official stud book attached to their name. Legally, they have to have some sort of parentage. I can’t go and watch every pony out on the moor and I don't wish to, so this [genetic testing] could be a way to fit in with the legislation, so our semi-wild ponies can be a part of our future. So that’s why I nearly lose my front teeth trying to pull tail hair!

“We’ve taken samples from five mares and foals, and as many stallions which came off in that particular drift. That’s why it’s a pilot, we have to see whether it is viable as a way forward that will be recognised scientifically as a way to fulfil what they need to be valued as part of the Agriculture Bill actually, because within that they mention semi-wild equines.”

She added: “We have something on our doorstep that we do not value and we should be valuing. Once they are gone, they will not be able to come back. It will be 'do you remember what we saw on Dartmoor as children', they will not be here anymore.”