SUFFOLK WILDLIFE TRUST: Setting off across the heath to spot semi-wild ponies

SWT  Exmoor ponies
SWT Exmoor ponies
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It’s early on a crisp winter morning and I’m out on Knettishall Heath to check that our Exmoor and Dartmoor ponies are grazing happily in the cold, wintry conditions, writes by Samantha Gay, Knettishall Heath people and wildlife ranger.

A thick drift of fog attempts to dampen my enthusiasm, but to no avail, however finding the ponies today presents more of a challenge. Some of my best memories of Knettishall Heath, Redgrave and Lopham Fen and Dunwich Forest (three of the largest nature reserves managed by Suffolk Wildlife Trust) revolve around the ponies that graze there, whether I’ve been looking for them or not!

No matter if I’m working or walking on the reserves that are home to our semi-wild friends, each day is completely different. To me the ponies have become part of the ancient landscapes and the wilderness that always entice me back. As the habitats change through the seasons, so of course do the ponies, and from a distance today their shaggy winter coats and steamy breath help me to pick them out on a scrubby ridge. Through binoculars it’s easy to make out their individual colourings ranging from milky coffee to as black as the night sky, blending with the diverse nature of the reserves they roam.

Whether it’s Exmoors galloping across an open heath at Knettishall or a Konik emerging as silently and unexpectedly as a roe from a boggy reed edge at Redgrave and Lopham Fen, the ponies bring energy and excitement for people of all ages. And what better way to pass a winter afternoon with your family than to guess at their names as they gaze at you from their preferred distance, or to track them and discover the great sandy pits where the ponies frolick and roll.

Then an unexpected treat: As the weak winter sun breaks through the fog I’m rewarded by views of a tiny goldcrest above me amongst a mixed roving flock of long-tailed tit feeding in some pines. Winter wildlife is so rewarding when you’re finally out and about, especially if you’ve waited patiently to spot a hunting barn owl or tracked a flock of waxwing. But at this time of year, before the onslaught of the spring bonanza with its colourful bulbs and dawn chorus, there is nothing wrong with attempting an easier goal to entice your family out into the fresh air. A pony watch at one of Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s reserves can be as easy or as challenging as you want to make it, and who knows what you may see along the way!