Britain's oldest breed of ponies could be wiped out because of rampant cross-breeding, a wildlife report warned yesterday.
Exmoor ponies have been grazing on the pastures of Exmoor National Park in Devon and Somerset since prehistoric times.
But a new report says the animals are increasingly mating with other breeds of horse who are being dumped on the moor because their owners can no longer afford them.
The surge in cross-breeding is producing larger, more dominant animals and threatening the existence of genuine pure-bred Exmoor ponies.
They are already classified as "endangered" because the number of adult breeding mares has fallen to between 100 and 300.
Local author and vet Peter Green said more must be done to prevent cross-breeding, adding that the problem was caused by a surge in hard-up horse owners dumping ponies, though some areas remained free of non-Exmoors.
The report, commissioned by the Exmoor National Park Authority, the Exmoor Pony Society and the Exmoor Moorland Landscape Partnership Scheme, adds: "Dunkery, Codsend, Countisbury, Porlock Common, Withypool Common, Winsford Hill, Haddon Hill, Deer Park, Warren, North Hill and Litton Moor appear at present to hold no non-Exmoor ponies, although there have been reports of such animals in the past and a few have been removed from these areas.
"For others it appears to be a matter of good fortune to date, since areas such as Dunkery and Withypool Common provide ample opportunity for the dumping of unwanted horses or ponies."
Mr Green said: "Several graziers and farmers have reported that ponies have been 'dumped' or abandoned on the open moor.
"There is no doubt that, at present over a large area of Exmoor, the free-living Exmoor pony herds are co-habiting with fertile non-Exmoor animals.
"Cross breeding is inevitable and some of the non-Exmoor stallions are larger and more dominant than the pure breeds."
Chairman of the Exmoor Pony Society, David Brewer, said a combination of factors including poor fencing and gates not being closed could be making the problem worse.
He said: "At this moment in time, it is not an unsolvable problem. The national park and owners of individual herds need to work together and then it can all fall in to place.
"The Exmoor is a numerically small, rare breed and we are trying to preserve the integrity of the pure bred pony."
The report canvassed 20 herd owners or breeders about their attitudes to the various organisations which exist to care for the Exmoors, all of which were deemed to be at least helpful, with some individuals singled out for particular praise.
However, the DNA testing scheme used at present to verify parentage and fulfil studbook criteria was found to divide opinion. Of the 18 breeders or owners who responded, four were very keen, five were unsure or said they found it problematic, and nine – who account for 70 per cent of the ponies – voiced opinions along the lines of "disastrous" and a "waste of time", saying it should be scrapped as soon as possible.
Discussing the work of the Newmarket laboratory where the DNA testing is carried out, Mr Green says difficulties encountered with Exmoor samples are extremely rare in any other breed.
"Only the freeliving Exmoor Pony poses such regular and frequent difficulties and there is no doubt
that the shortcomings arise from the husbandry, identification and sampling of the ponies on the moor."
He puts such problems down to difficulties in collecting the samples at gatherings, an experience that can be fraught with difficulties, noting that a specialist testing team would be welcomed by all involved.
The report also discusses the future of the herds' stewardship, with most owners of mature age and with only a quarter of the opinion that a member of their family may continue the work.
Possible solutions to the problem of genetic dilution included removing all free-running stallions, as well as shooting those that may arrive through being dumped.
Mr Green also proposes removing DNA testing altogether, returning the classification to visual identification only in order to increase the numbers available to breeding.
He also says that promoting the breed as a meat-producing animal "may invoke reactions of horror and disgust in those opposed to meat-eating in general and horsemeat consumption in particular", it could also be used as a way of maintaining the breed. Indeed, tourists visiting the moor while the report was being compiled said they considered that the serving of meat from Exmoors as a local delicacy could become an attraction – and some owners were in favour.