Dartmoor ponies return to the moor with fresh hope of a future

Watch Jacquie Bird's report

There is fresh hope to protect Dartmoor Hill ponies in the shape of a special project to DNA test the animals.

The Dartmoor Hill Pony Association and Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony charity are working with scientists at Aberystwyth University to develop and pilot a new genetic testing procedure for the moor’s semi-wild pony herds.

Genetic information will be taken from tail hair samples to analyse the animals' parentage.

Their history dates back to the ice age as remains found in Kents Cavern prove. Credit: ITV News West Country

The ponies are crucial for the moorland. By grazing they keep the land fit for people to visit it without the vegetation making Dartmoor overgrown and inaccessible.

But unlike other animals, there is no money at all in the ponies despite their huge value to the land.

These are not a breed, these are a type, they are pre-breed, they've been running around on Dartmoor for 4,000 years. We've got to find a way to show how amazing these ponies are.

Charlotte Faulkner, Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony
A number of the ponies from this year's drift will be sold at Chagford Market on Thursday 8th October. Credit: ITV News West Country

Every year around the end of September beginning of October the Hill ponies are brought off the moor be tracked and checked over.

This year the new project alongside the drift will DNA test the animals so a clearer picture of their heritage can prove what a valuable resource they are to farmers.

It follows an IBERS study which found that Dartmoor ‘Hillies’ have distinct genetics not seen in any other breed before. It is hoped they'll give clues as to how they have evolved to survive and thrive in a harsh upland environment.

DEFRA have recognised the value of the Dartmoor Hill pony in recent changes to a new agricultural bill. Credit: ITV News West Country

For Dartmoor Hill farmer Charles Mudge, keeping these animals is a way of life and a tradition that he wants to pass down to his own son.

It costs money to take them off the moor, microchip them, try to sell them but Charles says he could not imagine a world without them.

I wouldn't want it any other way. These three days, I plan my whole year around them.

Charles Mudge, Dartmoor Hill Farmer