A project bringing Dartmoor ponies to the Devon coast as conservation grazers has helped to ensure that numbers of the rare Cirl Bunting on the site have more than quadrupled.

The project, a partnership between the RSPB, Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust and Dartmoor farmers Margaret Rogers and Michael Lamb from Widecombe-in-the-Moor, has had this effect on the population of the rare bird over the last five years.

The RSPB has been loaning Dartmoor ponies to graze the steep but flower-rich fields at it's coastal reserve, Labrador Bay (between Shaldon and Maidencombe) since winter 2009/10.

The grazing helps preserve the special habitat at the site, which would otherwise disappear under bracken and scrub.

The Cirl Bunting is a colourful small bird of farmland that has a deep connection with Devon; it was where they were first recorded in 1800 and from where they expanded to become a familiar species around villages and farms throughout southern England. The bird's fortunes suffered a setback after World War Two when changes in land management led to a loss of feeding and nesting sites. Cirl Bunting underwent a catastrophic decline and by the early 1990s numbered less than 120 pairs and was found nowhere else in the UK other than south Devon.

At Labrador Bay the numbers have increased from three pairs before purchase in 2008 to almost 30 pairs now.

Dartmoor Ponies – one element of the methods used to manage these areas - are suited to the environment even in the winter because they are robust and hardy, graze a broad variety of plants and thrive on the sparse, steep grassland. They have been ideal where grassland is under restoration and unsuitable for other stock such as cattle or sheep. Cattle graze the majority of the reserve in the summer and create the varied structure favoured by Cirls.

The ponies graze the RSPB site from January to May. Each year their owners Margaret and Michael select ponies of the right age and attitude for the site and deliver them to the RSPB and its Wardens.

Margaret Rogers said: “We provide sensible ponies that are trained to follow a bucket, can be handled in a pen but are not friendly with walkers or dogs that have right of access.

"They are all bred within the Dartmoor Pony Moorland Scheme so are very much part of the conservation work to retain the unique bloodlines from the Native Dartmoor Pony."

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