Each October, people travel from far and wide to attend the annual Dartmoor pony drift sale held by auctioneers Rendells at Chagford Market Field. After the closure of the Tavistock sale, Chagford is the last remaining drift.
Fears were high last October that even Chagford would fall foul of bureaucracy when, with just over a week to go, DEFRA tried to enforce new rules. “We had a system that worked very well before, but DEFRA tried to replace the system with a semi-passport that needed to be issued between the sale ring and the trailer,” Charlotte Faulkner from Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony explained. “They required that we get vets to draw up and sign a silhouette of each pony, but there weren’t enough hours or vets to go around to make that possible. In order to get around it, we built a photobox — which is basically a Perspex box that can keep a foal still enough — and we were able to take photos of the ponies on all four sides.”
At the last minute, with a huge effort from volunteers and all those involved, the sale went ahead. And this year, the crowds descended with buyers from Yorkshire, North Wales, Surrey, Cornwall and Somerset, along with the local buyers and sellers and those regular Dartmoor faces that would be missed if they weren’t there.
In 2013 the sum total of the whole sale was a mere £918, with only 32% of the ponies finding new homes. Many were expecting that to be the last year of the sale but gradually the demand for ponies has increased, resulting this year in a 100% sale rate at an average of £173 compared with £18 in 2013.
Top price of the day was a remarkable £1,491 for a coloured filly from Mr A Steed. Other prices included Mary Alford – Shetland fillies to £504, Shetland colts to £270. Mr N Burgoyne – black fillies to £378. Mr J Shears – spotted fillies to £550, spotted colts to £520.
And this years’ sale coincided with news that a new genetic testing project is underway to try and protect the ponies. Until now, most of the ponies on Dartmoor have been excluded from Government support for rare, native ponies, because they roam free in natural herds rather than adhere to strict man-managed breeding rules. The new Agriculture Bill is set to change all that.
The Dartmoor Hill Pony Association and local charity Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony are working closely with the NEOGEN Genomics and IBERS University of Aberystwyth, in consultation with the Rare Breed Survival Trust and Weatherby’s Scientific, to develop and pilot a new genetic testing procedure.
Hair will be pulled from the tails of selected Dartmoor Hill Ponies: genetic information will be gleaned from the hair, then analysed to confirm parentage of foals and further map recently-discovered rare genetics related to the ability to thrive in the harsh moorland climate.
Stallions, mares and foals were selected from the drift and it is hoped that the results will be analysed and reported early in the new year. If successful, then the test could be rolled out to other semi-wild pony populations in the UK.
This is an important step in getting all ponies on Dartmoor commons valued and recognised in the next payment schemes. Aberystwyth University will be analysing test results to further study the genetic rarities that make Dartmoor’s Hill Ponies of such interest.
Charlotte Faulkner said: “This pilot is a significant step in getting the UK’s rare, native semi-wild ponies their due recognition. This really is a wonderful collaboration of organisations, which is working to give these ponies, whose ancestors have roamed here for millennia, their rightful place in the future.”