Is it possible to slaughter an animal in order to ensure its survival? A British livestock organization is about to find out.

Big news: “Pony meat” is going on sale at the Devon farmer’s market in merry olde England, as well as “pony sausage,” with both available online for the discerning consumer who just can’t make it to the market.

According to a report in the London newspaper The Daily Express, the sale of meat from what are known locally as Dartmoor Hill ponies is, in fact, an effort to save the breed. So say the activists behind this surprising strategy.

A British farmer named Charlotte Faulkner organized the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association to protect the semi-feral herds, from which a number of ponies are slaughtered each year to maintain their habitat on England’s moors. Right now, the meat is shipped off to zoos as food for “big cats.”

That’s about to change.

Faulker, 53, who keeps a dozen young Dartmoor Hill ponies in her own barns, decided “to return to the practices of days gone by,” she told the newspaper, and market the meat to the British public.

And guess who recommended that she try to create a market for the older ponies: Some of the leading British conservationists. Of course, her proposal was greeted with outrage by some nonprofit groups that refused to support the idea.

Faulkner told The Sunday Times that she has been bombarded with abusive telephone calls from animal activists that accused her of cruelty. She said she asks callers to spend the day at her farm, which has fields full of ponies given to her by people who cannot care for them anymore.

That won’t sway any activists, but the statistics underscore the breed’s precarious status.

In the 1950s, there were more than 30,000 Dartmoor Hill ponies roaming the moors. When the local granite quarries and coal mines were operating, they were used as pit ponies, as later as riding and driving horses. Today, their numbers have declined to as few as 800, and since the recent recession even fewer farmers can afford to keep them merely for recreation.

Here’s the problem as described across the pond: The ponies are critical to maintaining the moors. Their relentless grazing effectively trims the native grasses, which maintain both the local plant and animal ecosystems. Some 40 or 50 farmers still herd and trade the ponies, according to the newspaper, but as many as 400 foals are shot each year by other farmers who don’t want them roaming across farm fields or pastures.

Life on the moors

That’s a shame, because Dartmoor Hill ponies are well-suited to the “West Country” of England. Despite their diminutive size — standing on average less than four feet tall — the animals are strong and exceptionally hardy, which is a good thing, given the extreme weather conditions in the region.

For a more graphic description of weather on the moors, refer to the Sherlock Holmes adventure, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” which was set in Dartmoor on Devon where the feral ponies currently live.

Here are some other interesting facts about the Dartmoor ponies:

  • Many of the ponies escaped captivity in the years after World War II, and now roam the hills and farms around the county of Somerset in southwest England.\
  • Some of those semi-wild herds have become “addicted” to sugar from getting fed by locals and tourists, and have been alleged to have charged, butted and even bitten people trying to feed them, according to reports in the Plymouth Herald.There is royal support for the ponies: Princess Anne has become an advocate of the idea that selling pony meat will help save the breed.
  • That last bullet point is absolutely true. In a 2014 speech to the World Horse Welfare organization -- of which she is president, by the way -- the princess made the case that owners might take better care of their horses if they believed they could eventually sell them for meat. Older ponies no longer considered “useful” are typically processed at a special abattoir in the south of England, then shipped across the English Channel to be sold in European markets.

Yet the question remains: Will putting pony meat on the menu for British consumption really save the breed?

According to a recent poll by The Independent newspaper, 56% of respondents said they would be willing to buy the meat if it could help save the ponies. We all know how soft such survey data are. It’s easy to say yes to a pollster, a whole lot different than actually shelling out cash to bring a package of Pony Sausage home to the family for dinner.

But if it’s good enough for a princess, it’s good enough for me.

Dan Murphy is food-industry journalist and commentator.