Looking after wild ponies in the Forest of Dean has helped volunteer David Chaloner stay active, learn about conservation and make a real difference to his local landscape.
David volunteers with The Foresters’ Forest Conservation Grazing project, led by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. The project has introduced areas of wild pony and cattle grazing in the Forest to improve habitat for a wider range of plants and wildlife. David is part of a team of trained Conservation Grazing volunteers who help Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust staff to check on the grazing animals.
Speaking about his background with horses, David said: “I retired early due to problems with my balance and vision. I moved to Spain where I learned to horse ride and became aware for the first time of horses and how much I enjoyed being around them. A funny thing is that my condition makes it impossible for me to ride a bike but riding horses seems to work just fine, so these creatures represent something very special to me.”
When David moved back to the Forest of Dean, volunteering quickly became an important part of his life.
“When we moved back to the UK, we were eventually drawn to the Forest of Dean because it just felt like such a great place,” he said.
“I’ve become extremely busy with all sorts of volunteering since moving here. Volunteering means a lot to me, it keeps me busy, active and provides structure and constant interest.”
The Conservation Grazing project meant that for the first time, David could combine volunteering and ponies. He said: “I hadn’t been aware of Foresters’ Forest until the Conservation Grazing project was about to start and needed stock checking volunteers.
“Because horses are really my thing, when I saw the signs up at Edgehills saying that Exmoor Ponies were coming, I was chomping at the bit to help!”
Speaking about his experience with the project, David said: “Being a Stock Checker has involved some real adventures at Edgehills. We’ve had some great fun and games whilst encouraging the ponies to move from one reserve to the other, particularly when it’s been muddy! As volunteers we talk with local people about litter and not feeding the ponies, and I think it’s helped to raise awareness with people regularly walking in the area.”
Getting to know the ponies of the Forest has been a special part of the project for David. “Being with the animals and caring for them is the highlight for me,” he said.
“I love it in the summer when you can get in amongst them and if you stand still for ages, they might come up and give you a nuzzle. It’s a careful balance that we have had to achieve as volunteers, because we need the ponies to feel relaxed with us so that we can check them, but we want them to remain wild and keep their distance from members of the public. We have got to know them well and have nicknames for some of the real characters.”
It’s not just the ponies that keep David busy. “Volunteering has brought a social element that I didn’t expect,” he explains.
“Regular visits to the site are crucial and it’s not uncommon to meet up with other members of the volunteer team during these. I’ve made some good friends, and feel completely in loop with the project, particularly through our Stock Checkers WhatsApp groups which is such an easy tool for interacting as a team.
“I do feel that I am fulfilling an important role, and the project leaders have made it clear that our volunteer involvement is really appreciated. The role is a real responsibility and commitment, so it is great to feel valued for what I do.”
The Conservation Grazing project ponies do an important job for nature, eating plants that dominate like bramble and gorse, and trampling bracken. It’s a natural way of managing the land for a wider range of animals and plants to thrive, including birds, reptiles and insects.
David has already noticed a difference in the Forest since starting as a volunteer. “I have learned loads through my involvement with the project,” he said. The animals were my primary interest when I started, but my awareness of the conservation issues has grown enormously.
“It has been fascinating to see the effects happening. I have observed a gentle clearing of the ground, different species being more obvious. I’ve gradually seen more adders and a greater variety of birds at Edgehills.
“I’m wholeheartedly enjoying my role as a Stock Checker. I feel I am contributing to caring for the Forest of Dean in a small way, and I hope to continue supporting the Conservation Grazing Project for as long as I can.”
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From creating habitats for our wildlife or improving our waterways, to recording oral histories or finding old photos, there’s always something going on to get involved in!