We took to the backroads again, nodding to Drake’s statue as we passed through Tavistock once more, climbing up towards Dartmoor. On our way south, the mists had closed around us completely and we had seen little more of the wild beauty of the moors than the first few yards and the tarmac in front of the car. This time, the skies were clear, and the few miles over the moor looked like taking a while, as I could not resist stopping at almost every possible place.
Dartmoor is an ancient and unspoiled landscape. Once, long, long ago, it was forested, but our early ancestors began creating clearings to attract game. That worked so well they no longer needed to follow the herds, but settled down, forming the communities that left behind them a landscape rich in archaeology. A landscape we would not have time to explore on this trip, sadly.
Rocky tors crown the peaks where heather, gorse, and bracken rule over almost three hundred and seventy square miles of moorland. There are innumerable stone circles, settlements, cists, cairns, standing stones and stone rows… I think you could spend a lifetime up on the moor and never fail to marvel at the richness of its history or its bleak beauty. And if the archaeology were not enough, there are many legends and old stories to explore, from the Hairy Hands that grab a driver’s wheel, to tales of piskies for whom saucers of cream are still left at the door, black dogs, strange beasts and the occasional ghost.
And then there are the ponies. The pure-bred Dartmoor pony is now rare, with only a few hundred on the moor, where once there were thousands. The decline of the tin mines and the advent of mechanisation meant that the hardy, gentle ponies with their thick winter coats were no longer an economic necessity. The few that remain are kept in enclosed areas to prevent interbreeding with the semi-feral hill ponies that wander freely over the moor. It is these that the visitor is most likely to see and, thoroughbred or not, they are a delight. We were lucky to see many mares with tiny foals, some finding their feet and exploring, others just resting amongst the grass and wildflowers.
The relationship of man with these beautiful creatures can be traced back at least three and a half thousand years and their bones have been found in tombs on the moor. There is no way of knowing, without evidence, just how long ago man and horse began their symbiotic relationship, but one of the earliest artworks that remains in Britain, dating back around twelve and a half thousand years, is a carving of a horse that we had seen at Cresswell Crags, far away in the north. The ponies continue to play a critical part in the ecology of the moors, trampling down gorse and bracken, and at least one species of butterfly is wholly dependant upon their presence.
During daylight hours, the ponies wander close to the road, knowing full well that tourists are always good for a snack, even though it is forbidden to feed them. Stop the car to take photographs and you will not leave without encountering one of these friendly and curious animals who know nothing of the law and a good deal about how to convince tourists that they really need that illegal snack.
Sadly, though, the need for speed kills around a hundred and fifty animals on the moor every year. The open roads are too much of a temptation for ‘boy racers’ of any age or gender. Garden waste dumped by the side of the road poisons horses and money kills many more. The market for Dartmoor ponies is poor, with foals not even selling at market for £10… so foals are shot and sold to zoos as lion meat. Many of the farmers who keep Dartmoor ponies do so at great cost to themselves and various bodies are doing all they can to preserve and encourage the survival of the breed, including a controversial attempt to create a market for pony meat in restaurants. The hope is that if farmers can sell three-year-old ponies for the table, at least the foals will not be shot at birth, and the income would ensure their survival. That after thousands of years of living and working with these gorgeous creatures their survival depends on whether or not we care to eat them seems an appalling indictment of our society. Surely their presence in our lives and lands is worth more than that?