CONCERNED dog walkers are taking the lead in a campaign to stop plans to allow ponies to graze on a South Tyneside beauty spot.
Up to six Exmoor ponies are set to be allowed on Cleadon Hills in the winter months to eat grass, gorse, brambles and thistles.
South Tyneside Council says the animals will provide a more cost-effective way of looking after the nature reserve.
At a meeting of the council’s place select committee yesterday, members recommended pushing ahead with a trial scheme – despite opposition from dog walkers and Cleadon residents who claim the location is inappropriate.
The move follows a members’ site visit to Ryton in Gateshead, where a similar conservation scheme is being carried out.
Now the proposal is to go before West Shields community area forum next month and the council’s decision-making cabinet for final approval.
But a 120-name petition against the plan has been collected by dog walkers and others who use Cleadon Hills. Concern has been expressed that dogs and ponies will not mix well.
And protesters say their main concern is safety implications for the ponies.
June McLeod, speaking on behalf of protesters, said the hills were rubbish-strewn, used by youths on mini-motorbikes and simply not a safe environment for the ponies.
She said: “It is the ponies we are worried about. We too paid a site visit to Ryton and we spoke to the people there.
“It is a little village by a really quiet little road and there has been a couple of incidents of gorse fire, but that’s it.
“There were a lot of dog walkers there whose dogs are used to the countryside. We are in the town.
“At Cleadon Hills we have little mini-motorbikes travelling across the field.
“We see people playing target practice by putting bottles out. Just this weekend there were 50 children on the hills at midnight.
“People camp, we have fires, there are barbecues, people go sledging in the winter and rubbish is left around which we, the responsible people, clear up.”
Coun Margaret Meling, Labour representative for Cleadon and East Boldon, said: “The current conservation techniques are actually destroying some of our flora.
“They are not working and we must consider different avenues.
“The Exmoor ponies only form a tiny part of the whole management plan and it is a pity this has been promoted to the extent it has.
“Even until quite recently there have always been animals on Cleadon Hills, without very much distress to all and sundry.
“Exmoors are ideally suited to this purpose. They are obviously attractive and cute, but more importantly the composition of their jaws and their teeth are ideally suited to the scrubland and the gorse that they have got to eat.”
Coun Doreen Purvis, who represents Labour for Whiteleas, said: “I was reassured by the site visit to Ryton. There were no incidences of ponies being attacked, harmed or ill-treated in any way.”
Fellow councillor Bill Brady added: “Let’s not get side-tracked by the North East’s bad track record for animal cruelty. People will come to love these ponies.”