April on Hothfield Heathlands

April on Hothfield Heathlands

Kent Wildlife Trust volunteer Margery Thomas talks about a very special visit to Hothfield Heathlands from Clare Balding who came along to meet the reserve's important Konik ponies.

It was great to hear the Konik ponies on our local nature reserve featured on 12 March in the first of a short series on Wild Horses by Clare Balding on lunchtime Radio 4 (available on the iPlayer - http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09v2x6n ). Ian Rickards explained that they are one of the few animals to tackle soft rush and hard rush, really tough plants which can take over whole fields. Koniks are now used worldwide in conservation projects, the Hothfield ponies arriving as two separate herds from Holland. Clare watched them using nose and top lip to sweep away things they didn’t want to get in between the moss to what they did want.

The recording was made on a “misty murky damp” day in December, Balding meeting the misty coloured ponies up close: “Hello you lot …they look grumpy with each other...it took a while but now they’re following us, this one’s right up behind, wondering what have you got there, … are we friends now?.. This one has a fantastic mane as if it had a little peroxide streak put in the top - good highlights!”

Ian explained that the Koniks were an attempt by Polish breeders to recreate the Tarpan, the wild European pony (Konik is Polish for horse). Horse historian Susanna Forrest gave more detail on ancient breeds and the programme had news of DNA research only published this February in The Scientist showing that all breeds considered wild to date share genes with breeds that became the domestic horse. So Tarpan and Konik should be considered as feral rather than wild. Sadly there are no truly wild horses left, but as Clare concluded, the Koniks on Hothfield are “ a really interesting experiment, it’s working, they are healthy hard animals, they’re funny as well".

Ian emphasised the significance of this single remnant of ancient heath and peat bog in Kent, with a 96% loss of heathland countrywide over the last 200 years, an enormous reduction. He said it‘s amazing how quickly things change if you take the foot off pedal and abandon grazing, the heath would be under layers of scrub and we would lose the species that rely on heathlands. “There are not many places in this part of the world that have horses as part of the natural landscape, it’s nice that somewhere in Kent that’s still the case,” as the heathland birds twittered on in the background.

Hothfield reserve includes a sliver of land at the junction of Watery Lane and the A20, diagonally opposite the Triangle section. This wetland site had been abandoned for decades, slowly disappearing under loads of sycamore trees, an example of what happens when grazing and management stops – nature doesn’t stop, inexorably altering the habitat. Ian has organised grazing on it for 8 years now, but its isolation from the rest of the reserve makes it challenging to look after – “it’s difficult to run the cattle across the road at the exact right time”. This spring, volunteers have been tackling some of the bramble growth, and continuing the battle against the prolific sycamore. This segment is ideal habitat for the great crested newt and grass snake and Ian reports that even a water vole turned up a few years ago. The work will also benefit the marsh marigolds, southern marsh orchids and skullcap that grow here, all significant plants of dwindling habitats.

The Kent Wildlife Trust website has details of talks, courses and guided walks for 2018. The Wild About Gardens Scheme has tips on encouraging more wildlife into gardens, the garden awards and volunteer advisers. Hothfield Heathland is open to everyone. Please keep dogs in check and clean up. Various trails are signposted and indicated on the maps at entrances, which also give the location of the livestock. The noticeboard down the main slope from the Cade Road car park gives recent wildlife sightings. For email alerts on the location of the livestock on Hothfield, or to join the volunteers to help maintain the reserve or check the cattle contact the Warden on 01622 662012 or at ian.rickards@kentwildlife.org.uk.