Having captured this lucky picture of the ponies in Sutton Park I thought they would make a good subject for the ‘Nature Notes’. This photo was taken next to the northern perimeter of the park near Four Oaks Gate.
Sutton Park contains some of the finest surviving examples of lowland heath in the West Midlands but it’s maintenance presents many different challenges. I spoke to the park ranger a while ago who told me that the area is constantly under threat by prolific species, especially trees like the Silver Birch, which are always trying to revert the whole park into a wood.
You may remember a while ago the rangers cleared away a large area of broom at the top of the route we call Gumslade. This created an area of ‘heath’ that was considered a success. If you go that way now you will see that the Silver Birch are already taking over. They look very beautiful especially in the sunshine with their fresh, green Spring leaves but if your consideration is maintaining the wildlife appeal of the specific heathland environment then not so welcome!
Cattle grazing has long been a feature of the park and has been a vital part of maintaining the grassland however in recent years it has been difficult to find 250 head of cattle needed. Various alternatives were considered and in 1999 Exmoor Ponies were chosen and now the park is split in two with cattle grazing the south of the railway line in summer and the ponies grazing the area to the north of the line all year around.
Exmoor ponies are both robust and have a strong aesthetic appeal. They are an ‘endangered species’ on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust list and in 1990 only 777 existed world-wide. The ponies are more efficient than cattle for grazing as they feed closer to the ground and for longer periods daily. They are selective grazers and prefer leafy vegetation, avoiding wildflowers, including orchid spikes. They remain in good condition even on low quality winter forage, assuring the public of their welfare – unlike New Forest ponies which may thin down considerably.
Five fillies were brought from Exmoor in June 1999 and later in November three mares were introduced. The ponies did well and all three mares gave birth to foals. The herd size has been increased and now there are more than 30 ponies.
The impact of the ponies has been successful in terms of promoting heather and reducing the growth of coarse grass but unfortunately do not seem to affect the birch invasion which, if anything, maybe more extensive where they have access.
The ponies may not have met all the criteria that lead to their introduction from an environmental point of view but I think we would all agree they are a very welcome addition to Sutton Park. Whereas the cattle can be frisky and sometimes make folks nervous the ponies are wild and so tend to be quiet and shy. To come upon them as they forage on the edge of quieter woods is always a treat.
I remember a day leading Run Fit 1 over Gumslade when we reached the top of the hill we were in mist. As we curved around the edge of the wood sight and sound was muffled by the mist which made for quite a different experience. Dropping down the path towards Bracebridge the mist cleared and there were the ponies, gathered around the water in the sunshine. I know many folks think Gumslade is our worst route but perhaps if you think of it as the route where you are most likely to catch a rare glimpse of the ponies you might see it differently? Then again it is all uphill so maybe not!