WORRIED dog walkers are taking the lead in a campaign to stop plans to allow ponies to graze on a beauty spot.
Up to six Exmoor ponies are set to be allowed on Cleadon Hills over the winter months to eat grass, gorse, soft rush brambles and thistles.
The council say the animals will provide a more cost-effective way of looking after the nature reserve.
At a meeting of South Tyneside Council’s Place Select Committee yesterday, members agreed to push ahead with a trial scheme – despite opposition from dog walkers and Cleadon residents who claim the location is inappropriate.
The move followed a members’ site visit to Ryton in Gateshead, where a similar conservation scheme is being carried out.
Now the proposal is to go before a 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 on the hills.
And protesters say their main concern is the safety implications for the ponies.
June McLeod, speaking on behalf of the protesters, said the hills were rubbish-strewn, are used by youths on mini-motorbikes and were 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 quite used to the countryside, but 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.”