When you hear talk of the Dartmoor Drifts people are either discussing a bad winter or a practice that has occurred for centuries, this page concerns the latter instance.
I suppose a cowboy would describe a drift as a ’round-up’ for it was an occasion when cattle and ponies were gathered off the moor in order to ascertain if there were any illegally pastured animals grazing the Forest of Dartmoor. The Forest of Dartmoor was divided into four quarters and in each of these quarters is a animal pound.
As part of their tenancy agreement the venville men were duty bound to attend the annual drifts in order to round up all cattle and ponies within each quarter, there would be separate drifts for ponies and cattle. The first written record of a drift came from a document of 1012 where the ‘wild horses’ of Ashburton were rounded up. At a Court of Survey held at Lydford in 1608 it was decided that there should be three summer drifts and one winter drift to which the Venville tenants were expected to attend. They would occur on different days in each of the four quarters, the pony drifts were usually held between the 23rd of June and the 6th of August. Any animals that were not claimed by the 16th of August were then sold at the Princetown Fair in September.
The procedure of a drift was that the forest reeve would decide on which day the drift was to occur. The date was normally kept a secret so as not to forewarn any grazier who might be illegally pasturing animals in the Forest, thus giving him chance to remove them. At around 2.00am of the appointed day the reeve would send a messenger to the moorman of the quarter in which the drift was to take place. He would then summon the Venville tenants by blowing horns on the nearby tors. Some quarters used a hollow stone known as a ‘blowing stone‘ to amplify the sound of the horns. Once assembled the men would then scour the moors on foot and horseback and accompanied by their dogs. Every gully and tor would be searched and the cattle or ponies herded off the moor to a collection point, in the western quarter this is at Merrivale Bridge.
An official from the Duchy would then stand on a large stone and read a document to the assembled crowd. The owners of the animals then claim their stock, those belonging to the Venville tenants are allowed to ‘go free’ whilst every other owner has to pay a ‘fine’ for each beast. This basically was the fee for grazing the animal for that year. If any animal is not claimed it is then taken to the relevant pound, normally Dunnabridge Pound which was the ‘Duchy Pound’ serving the southern, western, and eastern quarters. Here the animals are kept for a maximum period of 21 days or until the beast is reclaimed. If the animal is reclaimed the owner has to pay a poundage and water fee, which in latter years was 5 shillings a head. If not claimed the cow or pony then becomes the property of the Duchy who will sell the beasts and keep the proceeds. An excellent account of the Pony Drift of 1923 at Shaugh Prior can be read – HERE.
There is an old custom related to the drifts which thankfully is no longer carried out today, it was known as ‘Footing’ and was first mentioned in the 1830s and then elucidated on in 1961 by Theo Brown. The practice involved young boys who were attending a drift for the first time. The poor unfortunate would be taken to a ‘Hanging Rock‘, most likely located by Dead Lake Foot and there a steel halter would be placed around his neck and the other end affixed to the middle overhanging rock of three. Here he was left to dangle with his feet barely toughing the ground, how long he was suspended there would depend on the kindness of his fellow riders but it was not unheard of for boys to be left there for about 24 hours. – Tales of a Dartmoor Village, Transactions of the Devonshire Association – Vol. XCIII, p.201.
The ‘official’ Duchy drifts were discontinued after 1940 although the commoners still hold their own drifts today. The process is much the same and in the case of the ponies many of them are sent to the Tavistock or Chagford pony sales. Today the pony drifts take place in late September to early October and once the animals are gathered at the collection point they are separated into owner groups. The ponies then get a health check, the sick, old or those to be sold are separated and the rest are returned to the moor. At the modern drifts there are newer modes of transport used to round up the animals in the form of quad and trail bikes which tend to add a lot more noise to the proceedings.