Scientists find endangered Dartmoor Hill Ponies have rare genetic signature

| 17th August 2017
Dartmoor Hill Ponies are hardened but still need urgent action. (C)
Semi-wild 'Dartmoor Hillies' have a unique genetic signature which allows it to survive in challenging habitats. But the ponies are now under threat due to their human neighbours, reports GILLY SMITH
The Dartmoor Hill Pony has a reservoir of unique genetic diversity for adaptive upland living that is worthy of protection

Scientists at the Aberystwyth University has discovered that the Dartmoor Hill Pony has a distinct genetic signature designed for survival.

The Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) study has discovered that the Dartmoor Hill Pony has distinct genetics not seen in any other breed before and may give clues to how they have evolved to survive and thrive in a harsh climate.

Dr Matt Hegarty of IBERS, Aberystwyth University said: ‘We’ve analysed the DNA from Dartmoor Hill Ponies and found that even though they may differ in height or colour, the Hillies are one distinct type of pony. They are different to any other native pony in the UK.

Unique genetic diversity


"They have rare genetic signatures not seen in the Dartmoor Pony - the other pony breed linked to the region - and are genetically quite distinct from them, which may be linked to their ability to thrive in the harsh upland environment where they live all year round. 

"This means that the Dartmoor Hill Pony has a reservoir of unique genetic diversity for adaptive upland living that is worthy of protection."

The news comes as the Dartmoor community is busy rebranding the Dartmoor Hill Ponies as ‘Dartmoor Hillies’ in a bid to raise awareness of their vital place in the region’s battle for conservation.

The semi-wild Hillies are all owned by local farmers but live in natural herds, with a stallion and his harem of mares free to roam on the high moor of Dartmoor. They have grazed Dartmoor for 4000 years, creating the landscape and homes for rare flora and fauna.  But farmers face an economic challenge to keep them on the high moor, prompting the rebranding campaign.


Exactly the right ponies


Charlotte Faulkner, the vice-chair Dartmoor Hill Pony Association, said: "Because these ponies are different heights and colours, they have been labelled ‘mongrels’ or ‘the rubbish on the moor’ in the past. 

"This study shows that they are, in fact, one unique type of pony. They are exactly the right ponies to be here because, over millennia of living on Dartmoor, they have evolved the physical adaptations and inherent herd knowledge to thrive in this harsh landscape."

The Dartmoor Hill Pony Association and Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony have encouraged the community of farmers to look for new ways of increasing value to the ponies to avoid the culling of the ponies at under a year old. Selling their meat and training them to become riding and driving ponies are just two ways in which farmers can justify keeping them. 

Now the campaigners have launched a new livery of lime and navy for proud owners of domesticated Hillies to wear to show off that their pony is a Dartmoor Hill Pony. Visitors to country shows across the South West may have seen the ponies and young riders of the Dartmoor Hill Pony Display team proudly sporting lime and navy costumes as they perform a complex musical ride.


This Author

Gilly Smith is a food and travel journalist and podcast producer for delicious. magazine. She tweets at @Gilllysmith

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