Today, I sent the e-mail below to fifty of the longer serving pony Lookers – volunteers who (used to) check the Exmoor ponies on a regular basis come rain, wind or snow. I have hesitated in the tense of the last sentence as I gain the impression that many of the Lookers have been made redundant by the pony trust or sadly fallen by the wayside through lack of communication.
Last month, I carried out my last lookering (checking) of some of the Sussex Pony Grazing & Conservation Trust’s Exmoor ponies, these being on the National Trust’s Gayles Farm property, adjacent to the Seven Sisters cliffs. So, now I have no connection with the Trust, a charitable trust that I set-up back in 2004. The Trust went on to become one of the largest pony conservation grazing set-ups in the country.
I have found it very difficult at times lately, dealing with retiring in early 2017 and withdrawing from what was very much ‘my baby’ but the world and myself have to move on. I now realise now just how much managing the 85 free-living ponies ruled my life and in some respects broke my personal life. I originally started the pony grazing back in 1999 whilst working for the Sussex Downs Conservation Board, in order to conserve the chalk grasslands of Firle escarpment and neighbouring areas of flower-rich Downland.
Eventually, ponies were grazing four areas of the Ashdown Forest, a RSPB reserve near Tunbridge Wells, Chailey Common, Hastings Country Park and several locations in the Beachy Head/Birling Gap area, to name the main grazing sites. I deeply regret that the last named two coastal areas are as from this year, now no longer being pony grazed – new management and in my view, a loss of one of the Trust’s great ‘jewels in its crown.’
I would like to put on the record, my sincere thanks to all those Lookers past and present and also to Bunny Hicks, Alan Skinner, Jon Curson and Malcolm Emery without whom, the pony grazing would never have got off the starting block! Also, to those many others and landowners, who co-operated with making it such a success.
The following is a piece I wrote after a most memorable pony move back in 2010 from Ashdown to Lullington:
‘With help from Bob, the Army’s Lands Warden and four people from the Estate Co and a bucket of feed, we led Herd 1 the ¾ mile to the [then] newly constructed permanent corral, all in about ¾ of an hour. We then separated 12 ponies out and released the remainder. Then the weather closed in!
Bob, our haulier phoned to say he was coming an hour earlier at 1pm due to the worsening conditions. By now there was a heavy snow falling; he duly arrived and proceeded to reverse with trepidation the last 1/4 mile downhill to the corral. We then split the ponies into groups for loading; Trouble was her usual un-sociable self and refused to load but we eventually cajoled her on board. Bob managed to drive his truck up and out of Pippingford – in the nick of time. The weather had now seriously closed in with visibility down to 20/30 metres, half darkness and with the snow packing down and resembling an ice rink by the time we reached the A22. Bob remarked that ‘it was the worse weather he’d driven in.’ It took us 2½ hours to reach Lullington arriving at 4pm. The seven volunteers were by now cold, bored and wondering how we were going to finish the task off.
Duncan Ellis (the farmer), had kindly gone on standby with his stockman Mick and a tractor to assist if necessary in towing Bob. It was decided however to shut several gateways and to drive the ponies along the farm roadway. By now, we were working in the surreal conditions of snow [6 inches?], darkness and moonlight – quite, quite beautiful. We eventually persuaded the ponies through some cattle and into the area adjacent to where they were intended to be, (until conditions allow us to drive them further up into Deep Dean). As for myself, I left Lullington at 5-30 and arrived home at 10pm!
A real team effort! I would particularly like thank Bob, Alan and Richard and staff for assisting with the gathering. To Bob for persevering in atrocious road conditions. To Maria, Michael, Mick, Mike, Nick and Sue for waiting around all afternoon and to Duncan and Mick for being on hand to advise and assist.’
“I cannot resist adding a note to Monty’s report. Eventually, Bob the lorry driver (what amazing skill!) got the lorry backed up the lane. I assumed that the ponies, once released, would high tail it as far as possible from the lorry and three of us had positioned ourselves further down the lane to ensure they did not go off the lane. We heard the rumble of hooves getting off the lorry – but no ponies came galloping past. Instead, through the dark we heard Monty, the Exmoor pony whisperer, approaching followed by an orderly file of ponies! A priceless memory for me!”
Susan [volunteer Looker]
Tuesday. Hastings Country Park. Met up with 5 new Lookers (volunteers who assist with checking the ponies); we now have an almost full complement there now.
Thursday. NT’s Blackcap nr Lewes. We erected some 400 m of electric fencing in readiness for the arrival of 12 Exmoor ponies next Tuesday. This was I suspect, some of the steepest ground that I’ve had to work on! Driving down the trackway below it was somewhat tricky to – steep and muddy in places. *While having lunch, a large group of house martins were feeding above us including at least 2 swifts.
Friday. We had the second of our Pony Trust’s work groups on Chailey Common, engaged in removing birch tree saplings from one of the more specie diverse areas of the Common. Rewarding but hard work!
Saturday. Big, two-day ‘Spartan Race’ endurance event being held at Pippingford Park in the Ashdown Forest area; I decided to go back during the early evening. Just as well, as several gates left open, which could have led to the ponies going walk-about! I politely expressed my displeasure to the organisers, we parting amicably, they accepting weaknesses in their organising.
Comment. I find it frustrating that these thousands of participants burn all that energy for no material benefit. It’s rather like jacking up the wheels on your car and then getting in and putting your foot down on the accelerator! I and my colleagues in wildlife conservation could find a mountain of tasks that could be carried out for a fraction of that determination and energy. How about it?
A busy week with a sad beginning. I received a number of calls on Sunday afternoon about a dead pony on Lullington Heath LNR. Upon arriving, I found that Scarpa – Natural England’s last remaining Exmoor pony had upped his hooves; he was well in his twenties. His companion, the Trust’s retired 31 year old mare Camilla, has of late really started to show her age and with the death of her companion, she was really distressed. I reluctantly decided it was best to have her put down and, the two of them were taken away, together, to that place in the heavens where old ponies go. I was quite saddened, as I’ve been responsible for her for almost 15 years and we’d developed quite a bond…
On Tuesday after discussions over the past month, the Trust’s committee agreed to split my position as Grazing Co-ordinator and for me to formally share the increasing work load with my assistant of almost three years, Anna Bogg. We work really well as a team. It also means that I get two days per week without worrying about the phone ringing!
Wednesday. In the afternoon, we erected two lots of electric fencing on two areas of Chailey Common in order to gather 11 ponies at ‘Red House’ and another 4 on ‘Lane End.’ On Thursday afternoon we brought them in for the night and they were treated to lots of food to settle them for the night.
Friday. At first light, I drove over and fed them again and repair one of the electric fences which the youngsters had presumably collided with in the night, they not having come across this hazard in their lives. At a more social hour, with help from a number of our Lookers, we had them corralled and all moved by lunchtime, over to the extensive combined commons at Chailey.
Tuesday. After walking for sometime looking for the five ponies on the RSPB’s Broadwater Warren reserve I’d given up hope of finding them – it was after all, midday, warm and humid. On my way back to the truck along a wooded ride, I fleetingly caught the unmistakable whiff of pony. Sure enough, not far away to my left there they were, grazing quietly in a coppiced glade.
Thursday. On visiting my second site, Chailey Common, to looker ponies I was informed by a walker that, she’d earlier seen, one solitary pony away bordering a wooded area I don’t usually walk to. Patiently, I worked my through the trees and eventually there they were, in the dappled shade of the trees.
On my way home, whilst driving along the Ridgeway road across Ashdown Forest, approaching on the opposite side of the road, was a bearded guy wearing a Stetson hat and leading a black, saddled horse, complete with panniers one of which bore a bright, blue-bagged sleeping bag. The scene was so surreal – and could have been from out of a film but then, there was the blue nylon bag and anyhow, I was driving and not dreaming!
Concerns raised yesterday (Saturday) afternoon by looker Carly, when the ponies at RSPB’s Broadwater Warren reserve were agitated and two were unaccounted for. At the time, we put it down to them being skittish possibly due to a thundery weather front moving in.
Today, after having looked extensively for the missing two ponies, Carly reported two ponies had been seen yesterday near the A26 trunk road. An hour later, Alan of the RSPB found them behind a high bank screening the car park! Assisted by Carly, her mother and some visitors, they managed to drive the ponies back through a nearby gate. Phew! The incident was almost certainly due to contractors leaving a gate open.
‘A Dictionary Of The Sussex Dialect,’ is where I got the term ‘Looker’ from back in 1999; it states:
Looker (east Sussex from Anglo Saxon to ‘look’). A shepherd or herdsman; a man employed to look after cattle in the marshes.
Lookering. The occupation of a ëlookerí in the marshes.
Below, is an additional piece I found on the web, plusother info. http://www.hunnisett.org.uk/tree/richard1748.php
“Richard Hunnisett (1748 – 1827). Richard was a ‘looker’ in the Wartling and Herstmonceux area. A Marsh Looker was someone who looked after sheep and cattle on the marshes to the south of these villages, on the Pevensy Levels and was often provided with a cottage and a small amount of land and often owned some livestock of their own. Checking the cattle is still known in the area as ‘lookering.’ Whilst it doesn’t sound very glamorous Richard apparently made a good living.”
Traditionally, many local farms would own a small area of the Pevensey Levels and in the days before the car, paid/shared men to keep a day to day watch over their livestock. Exceat Farm near Seaford for instance, then owned 47 acres of the Levels. Today, the word has come to the fore within conservation grazing circles around the country. Wildlife conservation would not be able to manage without volunteer lookers.