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13 June 2014
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Wilderness | Exmoor

Winter wilderness

Exmoor with ponies in winter

Exmoor is one of the country's great wilderness locations.

This rugged National Park is covered with heather and is home to a range of wildlife, including ponies and the famous-yet-elusive 'beast of Exmoor'.

Exmoor - winter wonders include moorland specialists.

Exmoor is actually Britain's second smallest National Park, but what it lacks in size, the area makes up for in diversity.

Within its 267 square miles there are open moorlands, wooded valleys and some of the most dramatic sea cliffs in the country.

The moor is named after its main river, the River Exe, and is dissected by combes or steep wooded valleys which have been formed by fast-running streams.

Exmoor became a National Park in 1954 and it is home to some of Britain's biggest and most impressive mammals including the Exmoor Pony.

Exmoor Ponies

Exmoor in winterThe Exmoor Pony is a moorland specialist designed to cope with tough winters and the poor diet available up on the moors.

This ancient breed has changed little in the last 12,000 years, and remains one of Exmoor's most famous inhabitants.

The pony has adapted to living on the moor, with a snow chute in its tail, bulging 'toad eyes' to keep out the elements, and short ears designed to reduce heat loss.

Their coats manes and tails are virtually waterproof and they have a distinctive, big belly so they can eat large amounts of nutrient-poor heather to obtain their daily energy supply.

The pony's insulation is so good that snow won't melt and build up on the ponies' backs when the weather gets rough.

The Exmoor Pony is one of the world's rarest animals with less than 1,200 on the planet, and only 200 proper moorland-bred ponies.

Every pony up is monitored by the Exmoor Pony Society to ensure the stock remains pure-bred.

An annual round up results in the ponies being branded to mark them as bona fide Exmoor Ponies.

This is the only time the animals are handled by humans - most of the year they live wild on the moor.

For wild animals the ponies are very tame but don't be tempted to feed or touch them.

Snowdrop valley

SnowdropOne of the plants adapted to survive the harsh British winter conditions on Exmoor is the Snowdrop.

One of the best places to see is a small reserve appropriately called Snowdrop Valley on the River Avill.


The poet Thomas Tickell called the flowers 'Vegetable Snow'.

Snowdrops were considered unlucky if you brought them into the house.

They bear the nickname 'February Fairmaids'. They were worn by some young women in Yorkshire to display their purity and were sometimes sent to over ardent wooers as a reminder not to try anything on.

Named not after a 'drop of snow' but 'drop' meaning earring - the Snowdrop looks like an earring pearl.

Snowdrops like damp conditions - look out for them close to rivers.

The Snowdrops grow in huge numbers, probably due to the undisturbed nature of the valley.

It's possible that the Snowdrops in the valley are actually the native British race rather than the imported variety.

These delicate flowers survive in winter because their leaves have specially hardened leaf tips for breaking through frozen ground - known as 'snow piercers' or 'snow breakers'.

The leaves also contain an antifreeze - when sub-zero temperatures strike, the water in the plants cells doesn't crystallise and rupture the cells.

King of the moor

Red DeerThe other famous Exmoor inhabitant is the Red Deer - over 3,000 roam over the moors.

At the end of winter the stags start to lose their antlers in readiness to grow a new pair during the summer.

The Red Deer is Britain's largest terrestrial mammal weighing in at up to 190 kg.

They get their name from their summer coat which goes a deep chestnut red, but in winter they grow a thicker darker brown coat.

There are quite a few wild populations in the UK, the biggest being found in Scotland, but Exmoor has the highest number in England.

Together with the Roe Deer, the Red Deer is the only native deer in the UK.

The Exmoor herd was once in danger of extinction during the 17th Century due to over-hunting.

Animals had to be brought in from Germany to boost numbers, but in recent years they have been doing very well on the moor.



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