26/3 horse and pony
At one time, the Mount Rogers area of southwestern Virginia was covered with dense forest, hemlock, Fraser fir, red spruce. In the mid-19th century, because this is how we people do things, we began to log the shit out of the area. Doggone if we didn’t want to build America out of wood! The logging denuded the hills and the valleys leaving the balds. We know that a person who is bald has little foliage on his head. The kind of bald left by logging is the same; only a little vegetation and natural growth covers the terrain. The upside is that these balds offer just the right type of grazing for the livestock raised by the settlers.
A hundred years later, the government began to acquire the land. It recognized that the balds afforded excellent viewing of the terrain so while they reforested some areas, they elected to keep the balds bald. The method they used to keep the balds bald is a story in itself.
One strategy to keep growth under control was to set fire to the place. Not uncommon. But fire will do as fire does and fires prove to be too unpredictable and dangerous.
Y’know who’s good at keeping balds bald? Animals. Animals and lawnmowers. I don’t know if anyone ever seriously considered the use of a lawnmower here — it takes some perseverance to mow nearly two million acres of grass and ground cover. Also the rocky composure of the land would rip up the mower blades like nobody’s business.
You could try it the way my neighbor’s landlord does it: Use a weedwacker for everything. He trims hedges, mows and edges the garden… I wouldn’t be surprised if, when winter comes, he uses it instead of a show shovel. But it’s slow.
So, we come to animals, a method our Forest Service has given some attention. First they brought in sheep, nature’s lawnmowers. The sheep were good at keeping the vegetation at a reasonable level but alas, these animals also ingested the area’s abundant mountain laurel which happens to kill them. R I P sheep.
For years, Havering, England had been using actual lawnmowers on their parks and green spaces. They recently decided to try cows instead. For one thing, using a machine makes for a tidy, uniform cut. Cows have no such neurosis. They graze the meadows willy nilly, leaving patches at uneven height and density. This is an advantage; the inconsistency allows for a variety of grasses and wildflowers to grow strong and healthy. Also, Havering estimates a monetary savings of fifty grand a year, cows over lawnmowers.
So our Forest Service tried cows. This worked quite well in the summer but when the weather cooled, and much of the plant life was at a minimum, the food source ran out, and the cows went the way of the sheep. R I P cows. The folks in charge tried goats but that didn’t work either. Now what?
Some guy from the nearby town of Sugar Grove had the idea that ponies might just be the ticket. He made a deal with the Forest Service to keep 50 ponies in the Pine Mountain area. Success! Ponies were hardy enough to survive the climate comfortably throughout the year and by grazing on the undergrowth and brush, they kept the land groomed and helped prevent forest fires.
And they still do. One hundred twenty ponies now live in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. They are cared for by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association. Every spring and fall the Association, made up of eight humans, round up the ponies, check them over and provide for any veterinary care they might need. Once a year male ponies are auctioned off to maintain the herd at a sustainable level.