A TRUST has launched a new campaign to restore the health of Dartmoor - and get more grazing animals in the area to increase biodiversity and reduce the risk of wildfires.

The Dartmoor Heritage Pony Trust has launched the Mouths on the Moor campaign to redress the loss of heathland plants that are becoming engulfed by purple moor grass and other aggressive species. 

They want to support Dartmoor Hill farmers and get more grazing animals on the moors to help the situation. 

The charity says heathland plants like heather and bilberry have been lost on around 40% of the moor, overtaken by vast expanses of Molinia grass (Molinia caerulea), large stands of western and European gorse (Ulex galli and Ulex europaeus) and bracken (Pteridium aquilinum).

Debbie Leach, CEO at Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust, said they must 'find a solution urgently'.

“In 2020, the government made its 30x30 pledge to protect at least 30 per cent of land and sea for Nature by 2030," she added.

"Two years on, there’s been little progress.  We have a stark example of the global Nature Emergency right on our doorstep - here on Dartmoor.

“We believe the solution is for the Government to work closely with Dartmoor’s farmers who understand the moor in their locality better than anyone else. Allowing some initial cutting would enable larger herds and the use of specific feeding strategies to draw grazing animals into these areas, so that they are then able to, literally, get their mouths on the moor.

“If the ponies native to Dartmoor and other livestock can once again access and effectively graze the rampant purple moor grass and gorse, as well as trample the bracken, other plants will re-establish.

"It will also help tackle the over-grazing of other habitats on Dartmoor, making it healthier overall and more attractive to visitors. Most importantly, it will allow the re-creation of biodiverse heathland habitats that support a wide range of animal and plant species.”

Natural England recognised the need for consultation to address the decline in the quality of the moorland environment. The public consultation stage of its Independent Review concluded on Monday, October 16 2023.

The environment on Dartmoor is in crisis due to changes in how the moor has been managed. Grazing restrictions after WWII led to fewer hill farmers and the 2002 foot and mouth epidemic made matters worse when all grazing animals were pulled off the moor for two growing seasons. 

The trust says due to the increase in nitrogen in the atmosphere, purple more grass, gorse species and bracken (all thrive off heightened nitrogen levels), have dominated large parts of Dartmoor. Due to management restrictions and reduced stocking levels, this has led to changes in the vegetation. 

There is a risk of out-of-control wildfires, adds the charity, which release large amounts of stored carbon dioxide from Dartmoor’s peat stores - carbon that must stay locked up in the ground and not be released into the atmosphere.

“Grazing by the ponies native to Dartmoor is particularly effective because ponies target preferred grasses, sedges and herbs, including  purple moor grass in spring," said DPHT trustee, Malcolm Snelgrove.

"A 10-year scientific study on DPHT’s moorland research site at Bellever, in partnership with Plymouth University, has resulted in a large volume of independently-collated, peer-reviewed data. This demonstrates the potential of the Heritage Dartmoor Pony to re-create a mosaic of vegetation that provides a more diverse habitat for invertebrates, small vertebrates and other wildlife. It’s not an overstatement to say the destiny of the ponies native to Dartmoor links directly to heathland re-creation on Dartmoor.

“The knock-on benefit of introducing new sustainable grazing regimes is that the atmospheric nitrogen, taken in by the purple moor grass, will be reduced because the cattle and ponies consume it and then use it to grow!”