This article discusses the various issues associated with the use of horses in extensive grazing for nature conservation in Britain.
Horses for courses
The increasing employment of equids (mainly horses but also donkeys) for extensive grazing programmes in Britain and Europe raises some important questions for both equine and nature conservation. Amongst these is the choice between British native ponies and European Konik horses for new forms of naturalistic (or natural) – as distinct from more traditional extensive and targeted conservation – grazing in the UK. The contrasting approaches of conservation and naturalistic grazing also give rise to a range of land, habitat and horse management issues, including animal welfare, particularly where minimal intervention strategies are favoured as in rewilding and similar initiatives.
This article explores some of the wider issues associated with the use of horses in extensive grazing contexts by considering questions such as:
- the policy framework for domestic animal genetic diversity;
- key differences between conservation and naturalistic grazing models;
- factors relevant to choices between native and non-native breeds;
- the suitability of different animals to a range of habitats;
- systems for managing equid and livestock grazing; and
- equine welfare requirements, particularly those linked to breeding and public perceptions.
Three extensive grazing case studies are set out in the final part of the article:
- the use of Exmoor ponies on the Knepp Estate in Southern England;
- the recent deployment of a herd of Koniks, as well as Welsh mountain ponies from a rescue centre, by the Cambrian Wildwood project in Mid Wales; and
- the Carneddau ponies of the Snowdonia National Park.
The need for greater engagement between government and funding bodies, equine heritage organisations, extensive grazing managers, research and educational institutions is highlighted in the article.
UK farm animal and equine heritage conservation policy
The 2012 UK Country Report on Farm Animal Genetic Diversity cites the Convention on Biological Diversity 2011-2020 Strategic Plan for Biodiversity requiring signatories “to develop and maintain strategies for minimising genetic erosion and safeguarding the genetic diversity of farmed animals”. This report also highlights the 2011 England Biodiversity Strategy which “sets out a commitment to protecting farm animal biodiversity and to collect a new Inventory of Breeds.” Horse and ponies were included on the UK BAR (Breeds at Risk) list for the ﬁrst time in 2012 and 15 breeds are identified. In addition, the 2012 report emphasises that: “conservation grazing has become a ‘new’ use for many breeds at risk and has the potential to make a signiﬁcant contribution to the conservation of Farm Animal Genetic Resources.” However, concern is expressed about the increasing use of exotic species and breeds, including “Konik ponies”.
Defining extensive, conservation and naturalistic grazing
A 2011 German Association for Landcare report on the Development of extensive grazing as a sustainable nature conservation tool points out that “extensively grazed grassland is a feature of many cultivated landscapes in Europe” and these “maintain a particularly rich biodiversity”. Habitats suited to this approach include: upland landscapes characterised by grassland; organic (boggy) soils, particularly those currently used as fields, following wetland rehydration; and, river and stream meadows in flood areas. The introduction of more intensive grazing into these and other habitats is a feature of modern agriculture which emerged from more traditional extensive grazing. However, this in turn can be contrasted with naturalistic grazing associated with rewilding in its various forms and similar initiatives.
In 2005, English Nature released a major report entitled Large herbivores in the wildwood and in modern naturalistic grazing systems. A 2009 article based on this work was published in British Wildlife under the title: Really Wild? Naturalistic grazing systems in modern landscapes . These publications distinguish between naturalistic (or natural) grazing and “other types of extensive grazing for conservation”. In Europe, the naturalistic model is identified with Dutch ecologist Franz Vera’s 2000 ground-breaking book on Grazing Ecology and Forest History and the Oostvaardersplassen rewilding project. Essentially, modern conservation grazing seeks to achieve wildlife targets (such as species composition) through the application of specific grazing regimes. By contrast, the Oostvaardersplassen model did not observe targets. Instead, grazing animals were left to manage ecosystems, natural processes allowed to act, and human intervention kept to a minimum. However, recent scrutiny of this Dutch rewilding experiment associated with over-stocking, subsequent over-grazing and major animal welfare concerns have led to interventionist modifications. Notwithstanding these measures, rewilding in Europe retains broad support amongst nature conservationists and the general public. Moreover, parts of the rewilding movement have become culturally and symbolically identified with grazing Konik horses originating from Poland but bred extensively in the Netherlands.
Breeds of equid suitable for diverse grazing contexts
Rewilding Horses, a 2014 publication by Rewilding Europe, identifies “several European primitive horse types which still have many characteristics of the original wild horse.” The report also notes: “the genetic background of modern ‘rewildable’ horse breeds and especially their relation to the extinct European wild horse is very often heavily disputed.” Whilst the evolutionary narrative is still unfolding, a “set of horse breeds” suitable for rewilding – and therefore, other naturalistic grazing programmes – in “North West Europe and England” is proposed. The Exmoor is preferred “with possibilities to add the Dartmoor and Welsh pony to restore genetic diversity or the Eriskay pony in harsher climates (eg. Scotland)”. By contrast, Konik horses are primarily recommended for “the lowland areas of Northern Central and Europe”, such as the Netherlands. However, a later publication by Rewilding Europe entitled Horse and Cattle Rewilding cautions: that “although Koniks have been transported all over Europe, it is wise to also consider other breeds” because over-use of Koniks undermines equine genetic diversity. Moreover, some communities will not accept these horses and prefer the use of local breeds or landraces.
Such advice largely reflects equine selection preferences amongst British extensive grazing practitioners. Nevertheless, a number of organisations, including the National Trust and some Wildlife Trusts have chosen to use Koniks after the Kent-based Wildwood Trust began to promote the breed in the early 2000s. Probably the most significant examples of the horse’s adoption is by the National Trust for grazing the Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire along with highland cattle. The Trust initially brought Koniks from a nature reserve in the Netherlands with “a very similar management system to that of Wicken Fen” and because of the horse’s reputation for adaptation to wetland habitats across Europe. Notwithstanding the selection of Koniks in this particular context, the National Trust has also taken the lead in using a range of British native ponies – including Shetlands, New Forests and Exmoors – on its reserves around the country and is probably the UK’s premier extensive equine grazing organisation in terms of experience.
Selection of animals for particular habitats
That old adage ‘horses for courses’ – or the selection of the most suitable animals for the task required – is as relevant to extensive grazing as it is to equestrian sports. Whilst identification of the appropriate breed is an important factor, equally significant is type, because some ponies of the same breed are more physically and temperamentally robust and adaptable than others. This is where human judgement and experience, often based on trial and error, in combination with objective selection criteria, are essential. Another important question is whether to employ a breeding herd and/or an adult group of mares and geldings. Breeding carries the risk of overstocking as well as significant welfare issues, along with seasonal disease and injury risks associated with particular habitats.
Returning to National Trust reserves, examples of animal selection for particular habitats, including Sites of Special Scientific Interest, around England show how the attributes of different breeds are employed. For instance, Shetland ponies, Britain’s smallest horse breed, are used by the Trust to help manage coastal heathland at Rinsey in Cornwall. These are chosen because their small hooves effectively trample coarse vegetation without ground damage so wildflowers can thrive. Their grazing also creates prime habitats for insects and helps conserve heathland by preventing saplings of gorse and bracken from taking over. Meanwhile, at the National Trust’s historic Cissbury Ring site in West Sussex, 17 “equine landscape engineers” in the form of New Forest ponies graze one of the rarest habitats in the UK, chalk grassland, to maintain both landscape heritage and restore wildlife. Again the combination of grazing and trampling removes old grass “thatch”, together with invasive scrub and bramble.
Equine and livestock management systems
Selection of the most appropriate management system for extensive grazing depends on nature conservation or ecological restoration aims and, in particular, whether specific wildlife targets are set or a non-target specific naturalistic approach is adopted. Grazing regimes somewhere between these approaches, with a lesser degree of monitoring, are clearly an option. The importance of selecting the right system for targeted grazing is shown with reference to Natura 2000 sites in the UK. These include Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas designated respectively under the European Union Habitats Directive and Birds Directive. According to Natural Resources Wales, work conducted by the LIFE Natura 2000 Programme for Wales in 2014-15 identified grazing and livestock management as a priority issue or risk affecting Natura 2000 features in Wales, and the most commonly cited issue or risk. This is consistent with that of UK reporting so optimal grazing management systems for nature conservation areas with specific biodiversity requirements are essential.
A 2007 technical note (updated in 2017) prepared by the Scottish Agricultural College provides a useful set of guidelines for more traditional “conservation grazing of semi-natural habitats.” These include: conducting site histories and surveys; the production of a grazing management plan with clear objectives; establishment of baseline stocking rates for livestock and equids; criteria for the selection of animals; factors relevant to seasonal and year-round grazing; and the importance of monitoring. By contrast, the National Trust 2011 vision document for Wicken Fen describes a “more naturalistic grazing system” – although this evolved from “traditional farm grazing” – for areas “typically over 100 hectares and with good vegetation development”. Grazing is year-round using a combination of Konik horses and highland cattle with the aim of creating “as natural a herd of large grazers as it is possible to get in lowland Britain.” New land is released as breeding increases the herd size. The Trust’s objective for Wicken Fen is to allow “wildlife habitats to develop where the water, soil and grazing animals determine” and “thus produce a more naturally dynamic suite of habitat restoration” which “might be more resilient to environmental and seasonal changes in the future”. Nevertheless, monitoring continues to have a key role as does the work of grazing managers in both nature conservation and animal welfare.
Horse welfare requirements and perceptions
Whilst Rewilding Europe is currently working on a separate status for rewilded horses in the European Union, i.e. wild versus domestic, there is no provision for this separation in UK animal welfare legislation which therefore covers all equids involved in extensive grazing. However, the semi-feral Carneddau mountain ponies in North Wales have historically been managed with minimal intervention associated with traditional extensive grazing practices. Although this approach has the advantage of encouraging hardiness – something that can be undermined by modern horse breeding practices – and a more robust breed type, deaths amongst the Carneddau herd during unprecedented snowfall in the early spring of 2013 reveal its shortcomings. Indeed, Aberystwyth University researchers have identified herd management based on welfare guidelines as an important factor in conserving this unique breed of Welsh pony, whilst acknowledging that over-bureaucracy can also be problematic.
Detailed up to date guidance on horse welfare is provided by the UK and national governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, together with information about specific requirements such as passports and identification.  Wider perceptions should also contribute to management decisions concerning animal welfare and public education may be necessary.
Issues of relevance to equids and livestock kept for extensive grazing, particularly with more naturalistic systems, are likely to include:
- wellbeing and condition-scoring throughout the year;
- checks for seasonal health risks, such as laminitis;
- breeding-related concerns;
- extent and form of handling by people;
- whether animals are used for human consumption (as with some Dartmoor ponies, for instance);
- veterinary and other interventions, including the use of medical products, dental and hoof inspections; and
- decision-making around euthanasia or slaughter, and if necessary culling.
Some of these issues are highly emotive and require clear policies together with communication strategies.
The National Trust operates detailed animal welfare guidelines for the naturalistic grazing programme at Wicken Fen. Whilst low interventionist management carries risks, including possible greater exposure to accidental injury and death, it also offers welfare benefits which domestication, intensive management and the increasing tendency to regard equids as pets may undermine. These benefits include: the social advantages of living in a herd; opportunities to display natural behaviours; and the health benefits of extensive grazing. One example of horses living in harmony with their environment is that Wicken Fen animals are not wormed allowing dung piles to provide habitats for invertebrates and micro-fauna.
Integrating practice and research
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust Grazing Animals Project’s website provides links to some of the wide-ranging digital resources available on extensive grazing https://www.rbst.org.uk/Pages/Category/gap-resources However, with some exceptions (notably in the work of Natural England ), such information tends to use the term “conservation grazing” interchangeably for traditional extensive grazing, modern conservation grazing and new forms of naturalistic grazing associated with rewilding and similar initiatives. A better-defined terminology is required so that land managers, grazing practitioners, research organisations and the general public can participate in a more informed discourse on an area of conservation which will be increasingly central to the emerging strategic land use and nature-based responses to climate change. For instance, a 2020 report by the UK Committee on Climate Change recommends that 15% of land cover in Britain and Northern Ireland is allocated to “rough grazing.” Rewilding Europe’s Graze Life project is currently investigating naturalistic grazing models associated with landscape-scale conservation where ecosystem restoration is a key aim. In Britain, these and other grazing models also require new collaborative research programmes.
An opportunity to combine British heritage livestock and equine conservation, including that of rare and endangered landraces such as the Exmoor and Carneddau Mountain ponies, with extensive grazing programmes has also been discussed. This does not rule out a role for European Konik horses if these are judged to be better adapted to environments such as wetlands. However, comparative studies of British native ponies and Konik horses are needed. This requires increased funding for equine research which might be extended to donkeys. These have not been widely used for extensive grazing in the UK, although the Donkey Sanctuary has recently started a monitoring project in south-west England. The charity might be a partner in future research projects. Albeit their grazing action is different, where donkeys have been used, for instance by the North Wales Naturalist Trust for winter grazing of a wetland site on Anglesey and summer grazing of a peatland bog in Ireland, results compared favourably with other equids. However, donkeys evolved from desert habitats and have different welfare requirements to horses.
The value of integrating grazing practice and research is exemplified in work co-ordinated by the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust in conjunction with the University of Plymouth. This project was launched in 2017 following requests from Defra and Natural England for assistance with the design of future stewardship schemes like the Environmental Land Management System, and to help evaluate the potential contribution of ponies to grazing and land management across England. More specifically, this initiative identifies ways to reduce the dominance of molinia or purple moor grass and to foster the re-establishment of more traditional dwarf shrubs such as common heather. Interim results from the project have been extremely positive about the role of ponies and the findings are judged to be relevant to heathland management throughout Britain.
Equids and extensive grazing in Britain – Three case studies
These short case studies are discussed below:
- Knepp Wildland – Extensive, conservation and naturalistic grazing with Exmoor ponies and other large herbivores.
- Cambrian Wildwood – Use of Konik horses and, provisionally during the summer, Highland cattle for extensive and naturalistic grazing.
- Carneddau Mountains – Traditional extensive and conservation grazing with semi-feral Welsh ponies and other livestock.
Brief descriptions are provided for environmental and other contexts, the habitat(s) and grazing system, horse selection and management, and the extent of provision for research and monitoring.
Knepp Wildland Exmoor ponies: rewilding a large country estate in the South of England
Environmental and other contexts
Knepp Wildland is a 3 500-acre country estate in West Sussex owned by Charlie Burrell and his wife the writer Isabella Tree. Her acclaimed 2018 book WILDING, the return of nature to a British farm describes what Defra’s 25 Year Environment Plan identifies as “landscape-scale restoration” since 2000. The beginnings of this process coincided with the publication of Franz Vera’s Grazing Ecology and Forest History and a visit to the Oostvaardersplassen rewilding experiment in Holland, which, according to Tree, expanded the Knepp Estate owners’ “horizons exponentially”.
Habitat(s) and grazing overview
A Holistic Management Plan for a naturalistic grazing project on the Knepp Castle Estate was drawn up by English Nature in 2006, although large herbivores had been employed since 2002 when fallow deer were introduced to the home park. The estate is divided into four blocks: a northern area reseeded with native grasses and grazed by old English longhorn cattle and roe deer; a middle section (700 acres/283 hectares) is retained as traditional parkland with cattle, ponies, red and fallow deer; a more naturalistic southern area (1,100 acres/450 hectares) of cattle, ponies, red, roe and fallow deer, together with pigs; and, Shipley Village which includes a mixture of let and organic grazing as well as woodland. According to Isabella Tree: “The numbers of herbivores in the project is really a question of judgement and rule of thumb. Too few and areas will turn into species-poor, closed canopy woodland. Too many and the land will revert to relatively uninteresting open grassland.”
Equid selection and management
Six Exmoor ponies were brought to Repton Park in 2003 and a colt located in the Middle Block in 2005. By 2009, 23 Exmoors had been introduced to the Southern Block. The choice of Exmoors is discussed in a 2006 paper by Joep van de Vlasakker of the Netherlands-based Large Herbivore Foundation. Knepp Wildland have also worked with the American livestock and horse behaviour expert Temple Grandin, amongst other, to develop and implement a range of animal welfare policies. 
Research and monitoring provision
Scientists from English Nature began to study the estate rewilding in 2003 and a Knepp Wildland Advisory Board was established in 2006. A five-year monitoring survey in 2009 revealed what Tree describes as “astonishing wildlife successes”. Further studies by Imperial College London between 2012-13 revealed an ongoing recovery of wildlife, including soil improvement, as did recording by Sussex University in 2015/16.
Cambrian Wildwood Koniks and rescue ponies: Mid Wales uplands ecological restoration
Environmental and other contexts
This new (2017) project currently has a 350-acre site at Bwlch Corog near Machynlleth which is managed through a partnership between the charity Wales Wild Land Foundation (WWLF) and the Woodland Trust. There is a longer-term aim to restore natural habitats and native species across a wider area of the Cambrian Mountains.
Habitat(s) and grazing overview
Cambrian Wildwood’s 350 acres is almost entirely covered with purple moor grass, a product of land drainage and a history of moorland burning and sheep grazing. The intention is that horses – and provisionally cattle for part of the year – will graze the moor grass allowing greater variation of vegetation, for example, trees, dwarf shrubs, flowering plants and other grass species to establish themselves; and, therefore, as the habitats improve, create the right conditions for many other species to return to the landscape.
Equid selection and management
WWLF acquired five mares and a stallion from the Kent-based Wildwood Trust in 2018. By 2019, there were four foals with a probable four or five more expected in 2020. In addition, during summer 2019, 10 recently gelded Welsh mountain ponies were obtained from a rescue centre in South Wales to temporarily provide extra grazing capacity. A Konik herd was chosen because of the breed’s reputation for hardiness, suitability for wet conditions and ability to cope with tough vegetation, including rush and Molinia. Koniks were also provided at no cost to the charity with some animals sourced from a site only an hour’s drive away. The breed’s usually more reliable gentle temperament is another important consideration.
As far as feasible, WWLF aims to restore native wildlife to the Cambrian Wildwood area. Consequently, as a British native pony, the Exmoor was initially the charity’s preferred breed option for grazing. However, the additional costs of procurement and the Exmoor Pony Society’s requirement for annual inspections were considered too onerous. Koniks, which like Exmoors display some primitive horse characteristics, were therefore selected. WWLF is currently working with the National Trust at Wicken Fen – where large Konik and Highland cattle herds are used for naturalistic grazing – to develop animal welfare guidelines.
Research and monitoring provision
There are no formal arrangements currently in place, but existing collaboration with universities on site ecology could be extended to work on grazing equids.
Carneddau Mountains Welsh ponies: Snowdonia National Park landscape conservation
Environmental and other contexts
The 300 semi-feral Carneddau Mountains ponies’ home grazing area includes nearly 13,500 acres or 20 square miles of common between Bethesda, Llanfairfechan, Capel Curig and Conwy in North Wales. In addition, Welsh grazing organisation Pori, Natur a Threftadaeth (PONT) has found ‘employment’ and homes for another 200 ponies across Wales and England since 2009.  Welsh sites include: National Resources Wales’ Cors Fochno, the National Trust’s Cwm Tydi and NRW’s Newborough Warren in Anglesey.
Habitat(s) and grazing objectives
Diverse habitats include mountains over 3,000 feet high, bogs, cliffs, rocky slopes and lakes. A management agreement with NRW supports grazing to benefit wildlife on the mountains, and conservation of a range of species from choughs to dung beetles. According to PONT: “The ponies graze differently from sheep and have a wider diet than domestic ponies, they will eat soft rush, Molinia, gorse and mountain grasses. Their grazing and trampling help to keep bracken and gorse under control, create pathways and maintain the landscape of the mountains.” 
Animal selection and management
Horses are owned and managed by the Carneddau Pony Society, a group of local farmers. Under the society’s agreement with NRW, herd numbers are maintained at around 300 to prevent overgrazing so draft mares, colt foals and surplus fillies are sold every year. An annual round-up takes place in November. Carneddau ponies are not designated a rare breed but are genetically distinct from a Welsh mountain pony. They are typically 10-11 hands and carry genes specifically related to hardiness and waterproofing. Animals receive an annual health check and a tail trim to show they have been gathered. PONT sometimes handles ponies lightly in a round pen so they can be head collared and loaded into trailers but the aim is to maintain natural behaviour.
Research and monitoring provision
Both equine and ecology researchers from Aberystwyth University’s ‘Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rurual Science’ (IBERS) have conducted studies relating to the genetic heritage of the Carneddau Mountain ponies and their contribution to nature conservation through grazing their home range and other sites. However, work on equids and extensive grazing is constrained because there is less funding available than for studies based on livestock.
Thanks to all the people and horses who contributed information to this article.
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