Devon

Dartmoor ponies winter starvation fear

ponies
Image caption These mares are pregnant on Dartmoor at the harshest time of year.

"Abuse of power" by a government agency will lead to the suffering and starvation of more than 70 Dartmoor hill ponies, it is claimed.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) stopped a charity from injecting hill ponies with a contraceptive.

The project which had been running for four years aimed to reduce an excess of foals being born and shot.

Defra received complaints from local equine organisations.

At the beginning of an investigation, Defra told Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony project organiser Charlotte Faulkner she might be prosecuted and asked her to "attend a formal interview under caution".

The project's solicitor accused Defra of being "extraordinarily heavy handed" in its approach.

More on Dartmoor hill ponies, plus other Devon and Cornwall news.

Defra dropped the investigation six months later saying there was no case to answer.

Ms Faulkner said Defra's actions meant mares would now be heavily pregnant in freezing conditions with no food to eat.

She said: "The farmers who own those mares will have to shoot the foals otherwise the mares will not survive."

Matthew Knight, from Knights Solicitors in Tunbridge Wells, said: "It's a disgraceful abuse of power by a statutory body.

"Defra's conduct was grossly disproportionate and quite wrong.

"There was no evidence of wrongdoing.''

Ms Faulkner started the project to try to reduce the number of foals being culled every year because there is little market for them as meat or pets and government rules only allow a certain number of animals to graze the moor.

Image caption Charlotte Faulkner is licenced to use a dart gun to administer the contraceptive drug

Ms Faulkner said the charity, Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony, and the vet involved have incurred more than £10,000 in legal costs because of the investigation.

She said the charity was unable to restart the project until it can find another vet to oversee it.

Defra has refused to pay compensation.

A government spokesperson said: "This investigation was subject to an independent review which concluded there was no evidence of inappropriate conduct.

"The Defra Investigation Service plays an important role in protecting animal welfare and ensuring animal husbandry practices do not present a risk to animal or human health."

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