PLANS to allow ponies to graze at a South Tyneside beauty spot are a “tragedy waiting to happen”, protesters have claimed.
Up to six Exmoor ponies are set to be transported to Cleadon Hills in the winter months to eat grass, gorse, brambles and thistles, as part of a management plan for the area.
But the scheme has raised the hackles of dog walkers and others who use the land.
Protesters claim the proposal could “end in tragedy” if the ponies bolt while walkers are enjoying a stroll at the nature reserve.
Yesterday, campaigners gathered on the hills to say a loud ‘no’ to the scheme – which is earmarked to start on a trial basis this winter.
Susan Hunt, 57, who lives in a cottage at the end of the hills, expressed her deep concerns.
She said: “The hills were donated by the Chapman family for the enjoyment of the people of South Tyneside.
“How can they ever enjoy those hills again? Who is going to take a child for a picnic with wild horses around?
“There was one occasion when a father had to throw his daughter over a wall when a herd ran after them.
“They say the Exmoor ponies are shy, but if they are disturbed, they act as a herd.
“The reality is that this is a tragedy waiting to happen.
“They say this trial is to be staged in the winter when it is quiet. But if there is half an inch of snowfall there are hundreds if not thousands of children with sledges, creating a lot of noise and disturbance for the ponies.
“We live here. We know what it’s like.”
Coun Jeff Milburn, Conservative representative for Cleadon and East Boldon, said: “Three years ago a public meeting was held about this plan and not a single person at that meeting wanted it. This is madness.
“There used to be cows on those hills and they were abused by yobs throwing stones and firing air rifles at them. How can it be a good idea to have ponies there? Our concerns are also with the welfare of these ponies.”
Coun Margaret Meling, who represents Cleadon and East Boldon for Labour, has claimed the management plan for the hills – of which pony grazing forms only a small part – has been “hijacked by a group of dog walkers”.
She added: “Their objections focus on a small aspect of the plan. The area was grazed by cattle and horses until 1990 and the council has tried to reintroduce grazing since it took up ownership in 1994, so this is not a new phenomenon.
“Putting Exmoors on the site, for a short period of time each year, will achieve better conservation. These ponies are wild, therefore only require a source of fresh water. By using Exmoors we are also helping the breed, which is endangered.”
Earlier this week, members of the West Shields, Cleadon and East Boldon Community Area Forum (CAF) discussed the local nature reserve management plan but made no formal proposal.
Coun Milburn added: “Residents don’t believe the CAF is representing their views. They have no confidence that they are being listened to.”
A council spokesman said: “Cleadon Hills local nature reserve is a very popular site used by many people.
“It is also site of special scientific interest (SSSI), which must be preserved and protected for the future.
“The conservation grazing scheme is just one of the methods being considered as part of a wider management plan for the local nature reserve.
“The plan sets out proposals for the effective management of all aspects of the site, including grasslands, scrub and hedgerow management and visitor facilities.
“We know that historically the land was grazed by animals – a process which is proven to enable the flowers and land to flourish, and that it has been beneficial in other parts of the region.
“The proposals will be considered by cabinet in due course.”
The council’s decision-making cabinet is expected to make a judgement on the plan later this year.