Wildlife on Exmoor
The Exmoor National Park is a haven for a vast array of wildlife, including the UK’s largest herd of red deer to iconic Exmoor Ponies, as well as being an important habitat for butterflies, birds, bats and plant life.
Probably the moor’s most well known residents, there are around twenty herds of ponies living on Exmoor. These days, the ponies are semi-feral and are all owned by various land owners, including the National Park and as such are regularly monitored and checked over every Autumn. This wasn’t always the case though and the breed has struggled at times during its long history with Exmoor, particularly after the Second World War when many of the region’s inhabitants were at war or too young/old to be able to properly care for them. During rationing, many of the ponies were used as a meat substitute and of course, those left behind would need a replacement for the working horses that had gone to war.
Since then though, thanks to the hard work of various organisations, including the Exmoor Pony Society and the Exmoor Pony Centre, the numbers of ponies has now increased and there are 500 registered Exmoor ponies in the National Park and around 3,500 worldwide.
The Exmoor Pony Society was established in 1921 as the formal guardian of the Exmoor pony breed, a registered charity, the society maintains the Exmoor Pony stud book in accordance with DEFRA legislation, is an approved Passport Issuing Organisation for the ponies and helps educate, inform and engage the public around this native breed.
Exmoor’s Red Deer
We know all about the ponies, but perhaps more iconic is Exmoor’s herd of red deer.
There have been registers kept of the deer for thousands of years and they were protected when Exmoor was a Royal Forest. This was so that the King of the time would have ample space to hunt and would have a never ending supply of venison. There is however, proof that the red deer have been calling Exmoor home since pre-historic times, making them one of the oldest residents of the National Park. Red Deer are the largest wild land animal that can be found in England, with adult stags reaching over 3 feet tall, they are very powerful and can also be skittish, so make sure to give them a wide berth if you see them grazing around on the moor. Because of their varied diet, there is no one place on Exmoor that the deer live and you can find them on moorland, farm land and even in the wooded areas, which is where they typically leave their young.
Speaking of which, if you are spending your summers exploring Exmoor, take care when around wooded areas or sheltered patches of land, calves are usually born in June and July and shouldn’t be approached, even if you think it has been abandoned. The mothers tend to leave them hidden while they are off grazing and won’t return if they can smell humans nearby. The calves will join the rest of the herd when they are a little older, so make sure not to get too close.
While the babies start to appear in the summer, April and May is probably a more exciting time to be on the look out for red deer. This is when the stags start to shed their antlers and grow their new set, so you’ll likely see stags, particularly young ones out and about rubbing their heads on nearby trees.
Bird watching on Exmoor
One of the most popular activities on Exmoor is bird watching, particularly in Porlock Vale where there it is common to see a diverse number of birds. Generally, you are sure to spot a variety of species all over Exmoor with raptors such as buzzards, red kites, sparrowhawks, kestrels, peregines, merlins, hen harriers and goshawks being a common sight. Waders, including sandpipers and oyster catchers are common in the more coastal parts of the National Park, while owls and finches can be food in the woodland. The rivers are home to a number of small birds such as kingfishers and warblers, plus finches, wagtails and tits all call the farm areas home.
Exmoor has one of the most diverse bird habitats in the whole of Devon, so it is a must visit for any twitcher!
Don’t forget, you can book bird walks and wildlife safaris as well as a number of other guided tours of the National Park – these provide an excellent chance to see some of the amazing wildlife in their natural habitat with guides to tell you all there is to know about this area of Devon. One of the most popular walks are the butterfly walks, where members of the butterfly conservation team will tell you more about these beautiful creatures and where to find them. You can pick up guides to the different butterfly species at visitor centres all over Exmoor.