A herd of 15 shaggy Exmoor ponies have been using their healthy appetites to enhance and maintain habitat for a number of different butterflies across Sussex recently.

The ponies have been hard at work in Ashdown Forest and on the South Downs, conserving sites for the Silver-studded Blue and the Silver-spotted Skipper, but now I’ve recruited them to help us with another struggling species – the downland Grayling.

The Grayling butterfly was once widespread across Sussex, but is now only found on a single slope in a remote valley east of Brighton. A recent decline in rabbit numbers has meant thick grass has been closing over the chalky areas that the Grayling butterfly loves and this is where the ponies come in! Exmoor ponies are ideally suited to deal with the thick, ranks grasses; their stomachs can deal with the rank Tor Grass that grows on the Downs and their forward-pointing teeth mean they can nibble the grass down to the base, just as rabbits do. 

Exmoor Pony

Their hooves also do a good job, breaking up the thatch of last year’s dead grass and creating small chalky divots that the Grayling butterfly uses for shelter and egg-laying. Butterfly Conservation volunteers will continue to monitor the butterfly and we hope that the ponies will make a real difference, but there is still the very real worry that the Grayling could be lost from the county. This year - after six hours of searching - volunteers were only able to count 24 Grayling butterflies at the site. The next nearest colony is nearly 50 miles away, so if we lose them here, they’re gone for good.

Partnership work will play a huge role in securing a future for this butterfly in Sussex. We’re already working alongside the South Downs National Park Authority and we will join their volunteers out on the site this winter to help with maintaining the habitat, creating chalky scrapes and reducing invading Wayfaring-tree scrub. The cost of the ponies has been shared between BC’s Sussex Branch and the National Park. We’re also in talks with the National Trust and other conservation partners to develop a longer-term project to secure the existing population. We would love to be able to create further habitat sites to encourage the Grayling to breed and spread to new areas, as this will provide more long-term security for this lovely butterfly - so watch this space!

Find out how you can help with conservation work this winter.

Steve Wheatley
Regional Conservation Manager for South East England