Patrick Thomson, ‘Ponies in the gorse: Care as a register for relations within conservation’

I am picking my way over rough ground with Ellie. We are being careful to avoid the thistles and the many holes that invite rolled ankles. To our left is open ground with a mix of grasses, heather, pine saplings and bracken. To our right is an electric fence and then beyond that is a heaped mass of gorse. It’s so densely thrown together it reminds me of a great pile of waste. Apparently, the needles of a gorse bush narrow down to a point sharper than a hypodermic needle. From one perspective, gorse is barbed wire that can photosynthesise and a strangling weed to be removed.

Ellie’s eyes move between scanning the gorse for any movement and then checking the ground for solid footing. We’re looking for five Exmoor ponies. Ellie explains to me that ponies like to disappear deep in the gorse. Their hides are thick enough to move through the gorse. Over time, these ponies create tunnels through the gorse. Ellie believes they disappear into the gorse for two reasons. First, it protects them from the elements. The Ashdown Forest is the highest land for twenty miles so the weather varies from glaring sun to harsh winds to persistent rain. Secondly, Ellie speculated that these ponies have a preserved prey instinct. Exmoor ponies are strong horses and have no predators on the Ashdown Forest and yet they seem comfortable hidden in the gorse. From the Exmoor pony’s perspective, this gorse is safe and sheltering.

Eventually, at the bottom of the fence, Ellie spots the brown flank of an Exmoor pony. Not long after it has slipped back into the gorse, we spot the heads of three more ponies. Ellie tries to assess how healthy each pony is. She wants to see them walking naturally and check their hind areas for infections. This activity is known as lookering. This is an invented term for conservationists going out and ‘checking in on’ their grazing animals. Now, I can understand why it got this name. As Ellie lookers each pony for disease and discomfort, the ponies are staring back at her. They almost seem to be asking ‘who are you to gaze at me?’ I find it harder than expected to break their gaze. Both human and pony are uncomfortable. No one quite knows how to respond.

The tension breaks when Ellie clicks her tongue and calls out to find the final pony. Now the ponies recognise who these visitors are. They lower their heads and wheel round to nuzzle each other. This sudden resolution of tension allows the fifth pony to reveal itself from the gorse background. Ellie is satisfied with this pony’s health, and we turn to walk back up the hill. Just a moment after we turn away, we hear a thundering behind us. Three spooked ponies canter down the hill and along the front of the fence. I don’t understand why they so unexpectedly bolted, but I can feel the weight of their movement. For a herbivorous animal kept behind an electric fence, I’m more intimidated than I should rationally be.

Credit to the author.

Ponies as mowers

Why have the conservationists ringed these ponies into three hectares with electric fencing? The short answer is: ponies eat the gorse. The longer answer is: Historically, gorse would have been cut back by humans and may have been used for firewood. In the Victorian period, gorse flowers were picked and then transported to London to make soap. Today there’s far fewer people making a living harvesting the Ashdown Forest’s natural resources. This allowed invasive species such as gorse to proliferate. Gorse is different to other ‘undesirable’ plants. It degrades the heathland environment by cramping out the heather.

So, the conservationists instrumentalise ponies to remove invasive species. The conservationists do possess tractor towed mowers that can strip a twelve foot wide patch down to the bare earth. However, ponies and grazing animals are far less destructive. I later asked Mitch, who is very active in caring for the animals, how selective the ponies could be. He pointed to an individual pine sapling. He said that the ponies would take the sapling out and leave heather around it.

Interestingly, conservationists wouldn’t say that the grazing animals are actually deliberately caring for the environment. Rather, conservationists believe that the grazing animals are performing their natural function. Whilst we stomping through long grass to look for a flock of fourteen ponies, Paul drew a comparison between grazing animals and other intrusive methods. Paul said the three strategies for managing invasive species are chemical poisons, towed mechanical mowers and animal grazing. Paul described animal grazing as ‘intimate’. He draws a metaphorical link between animal grazing and other instruments of conservation. The grazing animals are intimate mowers that do what they are naturally programmed to do. They are not directly caring for the environment.

This instrumentalization means that the Exmoor ponies have become ‘sacrificial populations’. (Van Dooreen 2014: 91) Their lives are degraded, so that the fragile heathland ecology can thrive. We should note that the animals are well treated by the standards of contemporary agriculture. However, these animals are still vulnerable to diseases that result from settled human agriculture. These are what Scott calls ‘the diseases of crowding’. They have a strong link to concentrations of faeces (Scott 2017:103). A few weeks prior to lookering with Ellie, a sheep had died from Pasteurella. Pasteurella is also known as shipping fever. It is far more likely in animals kept in stressful and over-heated environments, such as the transport trailers. It can become fatal if this stress is followed by bacterial exposures when co-mingling with other populations (Bagley 1997). This combination of lifestyle and bacterial exposure was enough to kill. Conserving this man-maintained environment requires violent and brutalising interventions. But, correctly enacting these interventions requires care.

Fundamentally, the conservationists know that these animals have their own agency. These are independent animals that conservationists cannot totally control. Conservationists use the animals’ knowledge that they are being cared for to alter their behaviour. I saw this when Alex tried to get a herd of Highland cattle to come to his call. He did not want the cattle to come ‘for the wrong reasons’. Alex shook a bucket of feed and deliberately held back his sheep dog. Alex didn’t want the cattle to be forcibly herded by his dog. In a Pavlovian manner, he wanted the cattle to associate the sound of the bucket with feed so they’d come to him. Whilst recognising that these are independent animals, Alex uses care to ensure certain behaviour from the grazing cattle. The relationship between human and animal gets formed by care. 

Care also makes humans distinct from animals through their ability to care for the whole Ashdown Forest’s ecology. Douglas repeatedly said, ‘I belong to the place, I’m part of the place, I serve the place.’ This sentiment encompasses the landscape of the Ashdown Forest. There’s a profound sense that the conservationists were caring for the Forest as a whole ecosystem. Ultimately, this view stems from how dependent the forest is on human interaction. Without humans (and their animals) removing the alkaline and nutrient-rich invasive plants, the heathland ecology would become a woodland. Paul illuminated this by saying that the Ashdown Forest is a ‘man-maintained place’. Again, he was discussing caring for the whole landscape and its rare ecology. While grazing animals have their natural instincts instrumentalised, conservationists serve the higher purpose of caring for the whole ecosystem.

Credit to the author.

Articulating a nature/culture division in the Ashdown Forest means accepting some rather contradictory truths. The conservators are deeply aware that the Ashdown Forest isn’t a pastoral, unspoiled wilderness and would regularly question the point of conserving a specific ecology. At the same time, saying something ‘wasn’t natural’ is a common way to disparage a practice. There was a sense of something being natural, even if it couldn’t always be found in the contemporary Ashdown Forest. The best way to demonstrate this is through an example.

On a warm but cloudy afternoon, I was having a cup of tea with Freddy and Paul behind the conservationists centre. We had been discussing tearing out the common wildflower, ragwort, an activity I had been taking part in that morning with Freddy. The seeds of ragwort can be toxic to horses if they get blown into their feed. As we were leaning against the wall, Paul made a comment that I kept turning over in my brain for the next few months. He said ‘I wish I could float between the human world and the natural world’ and I wish to ‘be in the natural world with a conservation mind’.

Paul’s first statement implies that presently, he can’t enter the natural world. He just wishes he could. Even if he could become part of nature, his second statement implies that he would retain a human character because he has a ‘conservation mind’. Within all these statements, humans are separate from the natural world. Humans have a certain inherent character that means they can’t become part of nature. So, what forms this division between human and natural? What makes a human?

It was only later that I thought perhaps care underpins this division between ‘the human world and the natural world’. The ability to care for the environment as a whole is experienced as a profound difference between the natural and the human. Care is a material to build the division between nature and culture. The Ashdown Forest’s conservationists don’t believe that grazing animals are caring for the ecosystem as a whole. They are simply fulfilling their evolutionary niche. Conservationists can get awfully close to this natural world, but they aren’t truly entering it. These conservationists might want to transgress this boundary, but they believe they can’t. So, conservationists deeply care for the nature that they see themselves as separate from nature.

Brian Short writes that if you stand on a hill and look across the Forest, you can read the history of human alterations to the soil pH. One can see patches were land owners heaped manure to create nutrient rich grass lawns around their manors (Short 2022:17). In a similar way, we can look across the landscape and see care. In the Ashdown Forest, care flows like a stream. It carves itself onto the landscape and simultaneously provides a space for multispecies communities to thrive. The nature of care shapes the landscape. Care is also used to construct a recursive ideology. Without the idea of care for the whole landscape, the specific nature/culture division found among the conservationists would be impossible.

Patrick Thomson is a third year HSPS student at the University of Cambridge. He is interested in the study of nature, time, ethics and government. He enjoys country music and hockey.


Bagley, C. 1997. Bovine Respiratory Disease. Utah Sate University Extension.

Scott, J. 2017. Against the grain: a deep history of the earliest states. Yale University Press.

Short, B. 2022. ‘Turbulent Foresters’: A Landscape Biography of Ashdown Forest. Boydell and Brewer.

Van Doreen, T. 2014. Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction. Columbia University Press.