RICHARD WILLIAMSON Nature Trails...Those mystery ponies were Buttons and George

The case of the mystery horses on Kingley Vale posed last month in this paper by Kingley Vale warden Katherine Birch can now be solved. It is I who was responsible for these two ponies as shown in her article about the famous national nature reserve three miles northwest of Chichester.

I can do no better than quote from my 1978 book, The Great Yew Forest published by Macmillan and long out of print. I am currently working on a total update of the book.

On page 184 I wrote the following: “Buttons and George were two grey gelding ponies bought for £80 apiece in 1971 at a New Forest sale. Neither had been broken in.

“They arrived one foggy November afternoon for their task of clearing 17 acres of derelict chalk grassland in the steep gully and valley floor, an area that had last seen a domestic grazing animal in 1938.

“Six hundred seedling yew trees had been cleared from this paddock, a somewhat unusual operation on a yew forest nature reserve, but one that was necessary if grassland was to be maintained. Several were not discovered until a year after the ponies had been browsing upon them, with no ill effects.

“Three more ponies came to the reserve within a year, and by April 1975 they had completed their task and were moved to Lullington Heath to eat their way through 70 acres of gorse. Between them they had removed the inhibiting blanket of old brome grass which had smothered the turf, and within two years hundreds of pyramid orchids were blooming on the valley slopes.

“Bee orchids too had a new habitat of open grassland once again and 30 flowers were counted for the first time. Milkwort and hairy violet returned, having all but choked out of existence.

“False oat grass on the valley floor gave way to sheep’s fescue grass, but for a time ragwort and wild parsnip proliferated. This was because the ponies were too heavy on their feet and gashed open the turf, especially during the winter of 1974-5.”

Buttons and George lived to be 27, I think, at their home on the downs near Eastbourne. Buttons was the most spirited of the two and was never broken, although he had to be caught every year for worming and hoof-filing.

One day a director of the Nature Conservancy Council (now Natural England), who claimed to have ridden broncos, asked to be placed on his back to show us how he could control horses.

He remained there for a few seconds and you could see Buttons thinking to himself: ‘This isn’t quite right’.

He bucked almost vertical and the director sailed through the air with the greatest of ease, adopting the same four-legged stance in a bed of nettles and snorting in a similar kind of way.

These ponies ate ten-foot sticks of dogwood like a person chewing rock. George got a taste for nettle roots and used to paw them out of the ground. When they went to Eastbourne to eat gorse they grew thick moustaches that protected their upper lips.

Without them the clearance of this lovely valley, which is an ongoing task, would have taken much longer.

After the ponies I brought up to 100 sheep at a time to graze the paddock to keep the turf properly short, so maintaining the 250 flowering plants in that place. But it is a never-ending task as Katherine knows now.