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Thursday 27 July 2017

Horses for courses: Why Dartmoor is eating its ponies

The Dartmoor Hill ponies have been on the moorlands for 3,500 years but their numbers have slumped Credit: Jay Williams for The Telegraph
The Dartmoor Hill ponies have been on the moorlands for 3,500 years but their numbers have slumped Credit: Jay Williams for The Telegraph

India Sturgis

At the Powdermills Pottery Café, in one particularly green fold of Dartmoor’s 386sq mile national park, a freezer is attracting a lot of attention. It sits plum in the centre of the shop with shelves marked in twos: “fillet & rib eye”, “diced & sirloin”, “rump & mince”.

But rather than beef, it is full of taffety (Devonshire dialect for “delicate on the palate”), otherwise known as Dartmoor Hill pony meat sourced from the herds that have grazed these scrubby moorlands for 3,500 years.

Café owner Joss Hibbs, who has lived in Dartmoor for 18 years, has sold the controversial meat here for a little over a year alongside Devonshire cream scones, ginger cake and gluten-free apple flapjacks.

“I have one customer who leaves with two carrier bags full. Another bought four pony steaks and returned to say it’s the best meat he has ever had,” she says. “Most people start with the sausages and burgers and move on to the steaks when they’re braver. When it first launched, I assumed all my windows would be broken. Although some people don’t want to eat it and object, there is the quiet majority who don’t.”

And though, in this nation of horse-lovers, many will shudder at the thought, pony chorizo is fast becoming a staple at the smartest dinner parties and on the menus of the best restaurants throughout Dartmoor and the South West.

Chefs love it for its versatility and, according to locals, it sits on the flavour spectrum somewhere between beef and venison: sweeter than the former but with a subtle gamey flavour due to the Dartmoor Hill pony’s varied, free-range diet. At 110 calories per 100 grams, the calorie content is less than comparable volumes of minced beef steak or roasted lamb.

Locals sit down to eat the pony meat Credit: Jay Williams for The Telegraph
Locals sit down to eat the pony meat Credit: Jay Williams for The Telegraph

Chris Maynard, 50, a chef in Newton Abbot, is a proponent, pointing out that countries such as France, Italy, Spain and China have sold horse meat for years. “There is no reason you can’t have it as a roasting joint on a Sunday. It is just the same as beef. It works with some of the sweeter sauces and exceptionally well with wild berries and mushrooms. It is very low in cholesterol, high in Omega-3. As meats go, really, it is a super meat.”

DCM’s founder, Charlotte Faulkner, who runs the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association, is a reluctant proponent of the pony meat market: “It has been a very serious problem for a long while. We are hanging on by a fingernail,” she says as we zip along Dartmoor’s lanes in an ancient white Land Rover. “It has been a long-term plan. It wasn’t an overnight thing of me thinking, ‘Oh, let’s eat some ponies’. I was so scared of the reaction everyone was going to have.”


When she first sold pony at the Tavistock farmers’ market, extra police were called, but by the end she was doing meal deals with the next door vegan pudding stall. “When people understand what we are trying to do they are much more receptive,” she says.

She has many critics nonetheless. Jenny How, managing director of Visit Dartmoor, is among them. “The meat scheme will never be needed to ‘save them from extinction’ since they are not in danger of becoming extinct - quite the opposite, there are far too many of them for the homes or grazing rights available,” she says.

Becky Treeby, a welfare officer for South West Equine Protection believes vasectomies would be a better solution. “There are other options available for these ponies and we still stand firmly against the pony meat and breeding ponies for slaughter.”

Despite the furore raging, restaurants, pubs and cafes across this bucolic area are chalking pony onto their menus. Two weeks ago DCM began selling their meat online; The Travelling Pizzeria took pony salami on pizzas to Glastonbury; and the popular Greedy Pig restaurant in Plymouth has just put in a new order for pony steak. Titles such as UK's Delicious Magazine has a podcast exploring cultural ramifications of the idea.

Back at Faulkner’s farm near Poundsgate a small collection of farmers and their families have gathered for a three course alfresco dinner of taffety carpaccio with horse radish cream and sweet pickled vegetables, slow-cooked taffety casserole and lemon posset to finish. It's been made by head chef, Ashley Parrott, at Tinpickle and Rhum, a brasserie in nearby Haytor Vale, where he is redesigning parts of the menu around pony meat.

“I haven’t found anything that it doesn’t go with,” he says. “The reluctance is because ponies [are seen] as pets, but these animals are semi-feral and like herds of deer - and we eat venison. People have to be open-minded.”

Pony chorizo made by Dartmoor Conservation Meat Credit: Jay Williams for The Telegraph
Pony chorizo made by Dartmoor Conservation Meat Credit: Jay Williams for The Telegraph

Faulker is clear that the market in pony meat must be a smaller part of a wider approach at herd control including stallions being vasectomised, contraceptive drugs used for mares  and herds being loaned for conservation grazing elsewhere.

“They will never be raised for meat," she says. "This is not a business. We don’t want the numbers to get too big. This is to give the farmers a bottom line and a reason to keep them again.”

We chew over the thought looking up at a nearby hill now covered with bracken that, years ago, never used to be there.

Telegraph.co.uk