Centuries ago, before industrialisation, mass transportation, and all the other trappings of "civilisation" changed the face of the landscape, the British Isles were teeming with far more exotic wildlife than you see now. There were also nine rather less exotic breeds of native pony. Mostly hairy and hardy, these colonised the land from the Highlands of Scotland to the hills of Connemara; from the Welsh valleys to the New Forest. And most of them, albeit in reduced numbers, are still there.
Each is unique in appearance: the Shetlands are like tiny film stars, with glamorous manes and tails, while the Dales are wrapped in huge coats to withstand bitter winters. One of the most endearing is the Exmoor,with its soft, biscuit-coloured nose and kindly temperament. It was once a favourite with children, to be foundcantering round innumerable Pony Club gymkhanas. Now it is scarcer than the Giant Panda. With only 250 breeding mares left, the species is close to extinction.
Teachers Margaret and Tim Mackintosh have found themselves unlikely guardians to this endangered animal. The couple, from Silverdale near Morecambe Bay, Lancashire,are surrounded by several National Trust and English Nature sites. A chance conversation with one of the wardens started a conservation project that has grown and grown, involving naturalists, councils and schools throughout Britain.
As the Exmoor's new-found champion, Tim is something of an evangelist. "Everyone knows about the panda," he says. "But people don't realise that the Exmoor pony is on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust list as endangered."
Margaret had always been keen on horses. She first met Exmoors as a student teacher, when she helped with a herd kept by Edinburgh's Royal Veterinary College primarily for student studies and pony trekking. "They were brilliant," she says. "They are such useful ponies and because they are so hardy and will eat coarse plants that other animals leave standing, they are ideal for conservation grazing."
As the ponies are now to be found in herds away from their native West Country, Margaret approached English Nature and suggested she and her husband could help with resettlement of the breed. The arrangement worked so well that the Mackintoshes have gone into partnership with English Nature, the National Trust and several wildlife trusts.
"We've called the project EPIC - Exmoor Ponies in Conservation - and it's gaining momentum all the time. We are being approached for ponies to graze land elsewhere more and more. We recently heard from conservationists in Ireland who want to set up a site there. At the moment there are no Exmoor ponies in Ireland, but there is no reason why there shouldn't be. We've put them in touch with wardens of existing sites so they can share experiences and information."
Margaret and Tim now have 15 ponies to look after on six local sites. A large part of their daily timetable is taken up with checking the ponies are safe, that they have access to water and that the public is kept fully informed about these special animals.
On a visit to Jack Scout, a coastal area within sight of the sea, the class of '98 - three yearlings - get a little too carried away trying to investigate the contents of Margaret's pockets. "Stop it before you start," she warns one youngster, with a tap on the nose - a lesson in manners no teacher can use in the classroom. "This is a very high-profile site, and despite our notices asking people not to feed them, they do give them sweets and titbits," Margaret explains. "That can result in the ponies following people in search of food and possibly making nuisances of themselves. It is important that we stop that before they get too old and too pushy."
Both teachers have found EPIC is taking up an increasing amount of their time. So when Margaret's school was forced to "lose" two members of staff at the end of this summer term, she jumped at the offer of voluntary severance. Although it meant giving up work at a primary school where she had taught for the past 11 years, she was pleased with the chance to devote more time to the ponies. "I had planned to take some time off, although the financial practicalities of what we are doing will mean doing some supply teaching eventually," she says.
EPIC has also forced Tim to rationalise his work. He was teaching part-time for the pupil referral service at Hornby High School and lecturing in computing at Preston FE college.
"I decided two half jobs just added up to too much," he says. "The project is constantly developing and gaining momentum as people see the benefits of what we are doing." So he decided to drop the lecturing.
Now they both have more time to devote to the project, Margaret and Tim are dedicated to realising its full educational potential. They have set up their own 18-acre site in Silverdale. Tim says: "People are learning about the ponies and the land by seeing them out on the various sites, and we provide explanatory boards telling visitors what we hope to achieve."
The land, part of a limestone pavement protection area called Myers Allotment, was designated a biological heritage site, and the couple have taken up a 10-year country stewardship on it. The idea is that local schools carry out research on the couple's website before making a visit. They can discover the kind of wildlife they will find, and the plants, animals, birds, trees and butterflies that live there. "It becomes a sort of natural treasure hunt," explains Margaret.
By doing what they do naturally - eating vegetation - the ponies are doing their bit for conservation too. Grazed land will encourage the return of flora and fauna including, it is hoped, rare species. "We are still waiting for the high brown fritillary butterflies. The site possesses all the ingredients they need to prosper," Tim says. "Each group that visits hopes it will be the one to see it."
He points out that the situation suits all concerned: that, by helping to conserve an endangered butterfly, an endangered pony helps to ensure its own survival.
Contact Tim and Margaret Mackintosh bye-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org or look up theEpicentre newsletter on www.equiworld.comepicissue2. Contact the Exmoor Pony Society at Glenfern, Waddicombe, Dulverton, Somerset TA22 9RY. Tel: 01398 341490
THE MANE EVENTS
* The Exmoor is the oldest of the nine native British breeds of pony.
* It made its first appearance in written records in the Domesday Book.
* The first of the modern herds was established by Sir Thomas Acland in 1818.
* Although they had become popular as children's riding ponies by the 1930s, on Exmoor itself they had a more traditional role, carrying farmers.
* Their surefootedness and stamina make them ideal for cross-breeding with event horses. Two Grand National winners are known to have had Exmoor blood.
* In the late 1940s, troops and hungry city dwellers began to slaughter them for food. At one point numbers were down to about 50.
* Today, Exmoor is home to nine free-living and breeding herds, with other groups on sites around Britain.
* Exmoor Ponies are similarly patterned, with colours from dun to bay or brown with black points. They have a mealy colour on the muzzle, around the eyes and inside the flanks.
* The Exmoor Pony Society, formed in 1921, holds a stallion parade in May and a breed show in August. Exmoor pony shows are held across the country.