Exmoor ponies have become hot property for rewilding projects across Europe, which use them as selective grazers to tend meadows and promote biodiversity. The scientists and conservationists behind the trials prefer to use animals as similar as possible to those which roamed the land before humans arrived.
However, pony groups in Britain claim that in one project in Denmark the animals are being left alone in fenced fields without sufficient grazing in the winter. They also claim there has been some evidence of ponies left with untreated wounds.
While the last truly wild horses in Europe are thought to have died out around 1900, many domesticated breeds have similar properties to their ancestors. Many European ponies died out after they were hunted for meat by humans.
The Exmoor pony is therefore one of the oldest breeds on the continent, and its hardy nature means it is seen as ideal to let loose on unmanaged landscapes. The first written records of ponies on Exmoor appear in the 11th-century Domesday Book when Exmoor was designated a Royal Forest.
Projects across Europe including in the Czech Republic, Denmark and the Netherlands have received Exmoor ponies for their land.
Molslaboratoriet at the Mols Bjerge National Park is one of Denmark’s flagship rewilding projects. The project has been subject to controversy over its Exmoor ponies, which have been pictured looking underweight, with at least one appearing to have severe wounds from a GPS tracking collar.
However, the organisation running the project has accused animal welfare activists of making false claims and harassing them over the ponies. They say that, apart from one accidental injury, there have been no animal welfare problems at the park.
The Exmoor Pony Society, based in the UK, was so concerned that they sent an expert to check on the ponies. Nigel Hill, chair of the society, said: “The images are shocking and we are certainly concerned about the ponies’ welfare.
“One of our inspectors has visited Mols Bjerge national park twice. His view was that in the summer there is plenty of keep and the site is lush, but in the winter the keep is short. He was concerned about the stocking density on the site and the fact that when the area was fenced it clearly had an impact on the ponies’ freedom to roam, and these observations were made clear to the relevant authorities.”
Some argue that fenced enclosures for animals do not constitute a rewilded space, and that the ponies should be free to roam and find food across the national park.
Dawn Westcott, who runs the Exmoor Pony Project from the moors, is campaigning for higher welfare standards for the breed abroad. She said: “There seems to be a misunderstanding that animals in fenced enclosures can be ‘left to survive’, when they cannot if the grazing area doesn’t sustain them. A mare was also forced to foal with a constricted GPS collar around her head which revealed hideous bleeding sores when eventually cut off.”
But Bo Skaarup, the director of the Natural History Museum which is behind the experiment, vigorously defended the project, saying: “Currently we are being harassed seriously by animal welfare activists without respect or recognition of the Danish authorities or the Natural History Museum of Aarhus – owner of Molslaboratoriet in Mols. I’m spending most of my time damage-controlling false accusations, misleading information and so on.
“Apart from a GPS tracking collar which unfortunately got misplaced on one of our animals and created a wound which has healed fine since we took it off, we haven’t had animal welfare problems or any veterinarian remarks at all on any of our animals since the scientific project started in 2016.”
This pilot scheme, of leaving animals in fenced enclosures to fend for themselves, is being lauded as the future Danish rewilding model, with proponents arguing it is natural and boosts biodiversity. However, people living nearby have set up a Facebook group to monitor the ponies, posting photographs of animals with their bones showing through their skin.
Animal welfare campaigner Stine Bo, who runs the group, said the animals appeared routinely underfed: “Supplementary feeding should have been put in place, but Mols Laboratoriet refuses any supplemental feeding of any kind and their assessment of the horse is that they are not thin enough to be taken out of the project.
The project says that it does not give the animals supplementary food, as they are trying to create as close to a natural environment as possible, but that the animals have enough food to survive and that it removes any horses which become unwell.
Westcott added: “Rewilding still forces animals to live inside fenced enclosures. They cannot migrate if food runs out. This is not ‘wild’ – the animals are dependent on their human owners to manage that enclosure in a suitable way to provide sufficient food and to maintain the health and wellbeing of the herd.
“I hope ‘rewilding’ projects do not take a dangerous direction where their managers think it is OK to buy in animals and then leave them to ‘live or die’ without due care and responsibility to those animals.”