Imagine going for a family walk on Dartmoor, the skies are clear, the birds singing and all is well with the world. In the distance you spot what seems to be a herd of ponies which all appear to be lying down. You decide to investigate and on approaching not a single one stirs. Suddenly you realise that they are not enjoying the Spring sunshine but in fact they are all dead. That is exactly what happened to Alan Hicks, his wife and their two children in the April of 1977 when they were out walking in Hollowcombe Bottom just outside of Postbridge.
Whilst it is not uncommon to come across the occasional dead pony on Dartmoor, (the carcass of one remained on Cut Hill for so long that it became the clue for a letterbox), to discover fifteen in the same vicinity is/was unheard of. The incident was reported to various authorities which included the police and the RSPCA but at the time nothing starling was made of the matter. However, over the coming months the news of this event began to spread amongst the media and soon became a worldwide hot topic. It was revealed that the ponies showed evidence of broken necks and/or spines and the carcasses had decomposed at an extraordinary rate. Various explanations for the unfortunate deaths were soon forthcoming and these ranged far and wide.
One theory was that they had all died due to heavy infestations of the redworm parasite, this is plausible in one sense insomuch that the later stages of the redworm encyst (hibernate) in the gut wall until the Spring when they all emerge at once. This heavy worm burden can cause severe problems and even death in horses but would not account for the broken bones of these ponies. It is also a fact that such situations predominantly occur when horses or ponies are densely stocked as the pastures become highly contaminated. These ponies would have grazed over large expanses of the moor which would mean that there would have been no heavy worm burden to cause such an infestation.
Another theory was that the ponies were grazing in the valley just under a waterfall when a sudden and violent torrent of water burst down and smashed the ponies against the boulders lying on the valley sides. Throughout time there have been reports of torrent rivers and streams washing away huge granite slabs belonging to clapper bridges so this idea is a remote possibility.
It was also suggested that the ponies may have died in separate locations and to safe the hassle of disposing of the carcasses the owner simply dumped them in one location. This seems highly unlikely because if this were the case why go to the trouble of collecting up all the bodies over what could be a large area and then simply dumping them in a spot which is only about 1.8 km from a vehicular access point? Other lines of investigation went down the routes of lightening strike, malnutrition, poisoning, disease and the ponies being part of some Satanic rite again most of these would have accounted for the broken bones.
Over time the official lines of inquiry fell silent and no definitive explanation was or has ever been given and those concerned with the investigation became mysteriously silent on the matter.
Now we come to one more theory as to the causes of death as put forward by the Devon Unidentified Objects Centre located in Torquay. As the name of this organisation implies, their theory was that the pony herd was happily grazing in Hollowcombe Bottom when an alien spacecraft hovered overhead. The vortex from the craft’s engine or propulsion method then created a mighty vortex which threw the ponies into the air and then they fell to the ground smashing themselves on the awaiting rocks and boulders. For some strange reason there was never outcome of this event and the story simply faded (or was officially helped to disappear) into the murky realms of urban myths.
Fast forward to the January of 2005 when seven sheep were found horribly mutilated near Pew Tor, later in the October of the same year a similar incident occurred involving another four sheep. Various explanations were given for the deaths with the favourite being some kind of occult activity. Now enter Mike Freebury, having investigated the original mystery of the ponies he now began to think that there may be some link between the three events. The unexplained sheep killings continued for the next two years and most happened in the same vicinity. Freebury, along with a colleague began numerous night vigils in the hope that they could find some explanation as to the deaths. On one of these ‘watches’ they observed a number of strange flashing lights which were captured on video, this once again led back to the UFO theory.
Could aliens really be visiting Dartmoor and killing all these animals? First reactions probably would be along the lines of utter ridicule but remember this, for centuries folk firmly believed that piskies lived on Dartmoor, to this day people will say they have actually seen them – so why not aliens? Maybe, the piskies are not creatures from middle earth, it just could be that this is how they were regarded and in fact they were/are actual aliens? There I must end this as my tongue appears to be firmly stuck in my cheek.
Should you want to read into this mystery then in 2011 Mike Freebury published his story in a book called ‘Killers on the Moor’ which is available from the Amazon opposite.
ps. I have now bought the book for myself and I must say it’s an interesting read which not only details the pony mystery and sheep killings but encompasses a much wider range of unexplained animal killings from around Britain and the world. This is definitely one of those books which you pick up and can’t put down until the last page is reached.
Freebury, M. 2011. Killers on the Moor. Brighton: Book Guild Ltd.