And across the craggy, windswept landscape of Dartmoor — legendarily boggy, soggy and foggy Dartmoor — this gloomy weather, in combination with fast-moving motor vehicles, has taken a toll on the national park’s prized population of free-roaming ponies.
Hardy and undeniably handsome, the Dartmoor pony is well suited to the harsh climes of South West England’s moorlands — they've spent centuries adapting to the conditions. However, these shaggy-maned, semi-feral animals are no match for slick roads and speeding cars.
Just this year, 74 ponies have been killed on the roads of Dartmoor National Park in Devon, a 368-square-mile swath of moorland popular for rock climbing, hill walking, letterboxing and, in more recent years, geocaching. And with winter ahead, park officials worry that, unless aggressive and unorthodox measures are taken, that number could rise even further.
In a move inspired by an initiative in Finland to reduce traffic collisions involving reindeer, a handful of privately owned Dartmoor ponies have been treated to a glow-in-the-dark makeover as part of pony-protecting pilot scheme. Whereas the Finnish program involved spraying reindeer antlers with fluorescent liquid dye, the ponies have been given a simple stripe of reflective blue paint that casts an “alien glow" when the headlights of cars traveling down the darkened roads of Dartmoor pass over it.
“The reflective element is very bright and despite the horrendous weather, it's very visible,” Karla McKechnie, an officer with the Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society, recently explained to the BBC. “We'll now monitor how long it remains on the animals, and the company behind the paint is trying to see whether it can create an even brighter and more durable version."
True, the pony paint jobs, first applied back in late September to the sides and bottoms of a small number of horses to test the durability of the paint itself, do look a touch silly. (But, hey, it could be worse). And, yes, bestowing an animal with an “alien glow” in a sparsely populated, folklore-heavy area famous for cat-like cryptids and mysterious stone circles has the potential to really freak park visitors out.
But startling visitors is all part of the plan — as long as it gets them to slow down and mind the road.
“This is the worst time of the year, moving into darker evenings and foggy, icy roads," Mike Dendick of the Dartmoor National Park Authority tells the Western Morning News. "The speed limit on the moors is 40mph, but we ask people to drive in accordance with the road conditions, and that could mean a lot less than 40mph."
In addition to slowing down, Dendick requests that Dartmoor pony peekers refrain from feeding the animals, an activity that's strongly discouraged — illegal, in fact — but that many park visitors still partake in. "Some people think ponies can't survive on the moors in winter, but they have survived for thousands of years. Please don't feed them — it attracts them to the roadside where they can be injured."
In addition to the lure of tasty handouts from motorists, the ponies are drawn to Dartmoor’s oft-treacherous roads by a highly lick-able substance applied during the wintertime to keep those same motorists safe: salt.
If the Dartmoor pony pilot program proves to be a success, park officials could potential apply reflective paint to other free-grazing animals including cattle. “The moor is a working landscape and the animals are the priority," says McKechnie.
That said, the paint would need to be reapplied given that the ponies shed their coats twice a year. A previous scheme in which reflective collars were affixed to the ponies was eventually abandoned after the collars kept falling off.
In 2013, The Guardian estimated the population of Dartmoor's sturdy highland ponies to be less than 1,000. In the 1940s, the ponies, traditionally used as cart-pulling beasts of burden, numbered more than 30,000. Roughly 34,000 human residents live within the confines of the park in various small villages and market towns including Ashburton, Moretonhampstead and Princetown.
Dartmoor National Park: Come for the otherworldly tors of granite, the sweeping vistas and quaint country inns. Stay for the glow-in-the-dark animals.
Via [BBC], [Western Morning News] via [The Independent]