Cumbria’s free-roaming ponies
Rugged and resourceful, one of the last semi-feral herds of Fell ponies thrives on rough Cumbrian terrain
At the foot of the Birkbeck Fells in the east of Cumbria lies an unassuming farmstead. It is May, and in the rough terrain surrounding Stoney Gill Farm grazes one of the last herds of semi-feral Fell ponies. For most of the year, they range the high fells, but at this time, farmer Bill Potter and his wife Isobel bring their 24 ponies nearer home to foal. The land around the farm is barely distinguishable from the exposed commons they usually roam. However, it is enclosed by dry stone walls and close to the farm buildings so Bill can keep an eye on them. Strong, hardy animals, these members of north-west England’s native breed need only minimal attention. Seven strong-limbed, stiff-maned foals have arrived so far this year, with none requiring Bill’s intervention. By running their herd on the fell, Bill and Isobel are following a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. The sturdy Fell pony was once as essential a part of Cumbria’s landscape and culture as the Herdwick sheep. Today, only a handful live on the open fells. None are truly wild, each being owned by someone with commoners’ rights to run them on the fells. Fewer than a dozen people exercise these rights today, some with only three or four animals. Bill is one of only three pony breeders left with more than 20 mares. According to the Fell Pony Society, only 123 foals were born to semi-feral ponies in 2011, and 118 in 2012. In 2016, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust increased the breed’s risk rating from at risk to vulnerable. All this is a far cry from the days when ponies were an essential part of the agricultural economy. “All the farms had ponies; they were the tractor of the day,” recalls Bill. “They’re a brilliant working animal and very intelligent. When we were teenagers, we did everything with them. I used to take milk to the milk stand with one on the way to school. We’d ride them after school and at weekends. They were our pushbikes. When I left school, I was hired as a horseman and did all the work on the farm with Fell ponies; ploughing, hauling muck, everything.”
A sturdy pony
With 40 years’ experience under his belt judging Fells, Bill is well placed to describe what makes a good one. “It’s like building a house. You must have a good, strong foundation,” he says. That means big round feet, open heeled and with characteristic dark blue coloured horn. The pasterns, the part between the fetlock and the hoof, are sloping, but not too long. The cannon bones between the fetlock and the knee should be short, with plenty of good flat bone beneath big, well-formed knees, and strong, muscular legs and hindquarters. The back is strong and short, with a deep body and short neck. A small head, small, alert ears, big nostrils, a wide muzzle and big, bold, intelligent eyes are also characteristic of the breed standard. There is lots of silky hair. The mane and tail are left to grow long, and a pony should have plenty of fine hair at its heels. It all adds up to a charismatic animal that clearly shows its working roots. As the Fell Pony Society states, a Fell pony should be “as hard as iron”. It should have the “unmistakable appearance of hardiness peculiar to mountain ponies”, but also a “lively and alert appearance and great bone”. The ideal Fell pony is 13.2 hands,
though up to 14 hands is acceptable, a hand being 4in (10cm). Typically, they weigh between 700 and 1,000lbs (350-450kg). Recognised colours are black, brown, bay or grey, but not chestnut, piebald (black and white) or skewbald (brown and white). Some ponies have a small star on their forehead, or a small amount of white on their hind feet. Despite their sturdy appearance, these are agile animals, capable of tackling slopes that other breeds would struggle with. Even today, Fell ponies are used in steep areas where tractors cannot operate. They are employed in light forestry work, transporting equipment for repairing footpaths, and for carrying grouse and stags off the hill. Easily trained and good with people, they are known for their sure-footed trot and good hock action. This latter indicates that they have an expressive movement through the hind leg. Their size and their steady temperament make them popular animals for riding and trekking stables. Many are what Bill calls garden ponies, ridden for pleasure by adults and children alike. Their popularity has been boosted by Royal patronage. The Queen has ridden Fell ponies from a young age, and breeds them, while a pony bred by Bill was offside-leader on Prince Philip’s driving team of four Fells.
Starting a herd
Bill bought his first fell pony in 1952, at the age of 14. It cost him £11. He left school that same year, and worked variously as a rabbit catcher, farm horseman, tractorman, slaughterman, quarryman, and on the nearby M6 motorway. Many of his jobs brought him into contact with farmers, at a time when most were divesting themselves of their ponies, turning to tractors instead. “I always had a few pounds in my pocket. If anyone was going to send their ponies to be killed, I’d buy them,” he recalls. By 1972, he had 72 ponies, kept on the fells near his uncle’s Stoney Gill Farm. He and Isobel took over the farm when his uncle died in 1983, farming suckler calves and sheep as well as the ponies. Today, approaching retirement, the couple still farm 350 sheep. Their ponies, together with ponies owned by Bill’s brother’s family, form the Greenholme stud. The stud’s bloodlines are highly rated in the Fell pony fraternity, accounting for countless show champions as well as supplying ponies to the Queen and Prince Philip.
“With flowing tail and flying mane... A thousand horse - the wild - the free Like waves that follow o’er the sea, Came thickly thundering on.” Lord Byron, ‘Mazeppa’s Ride’
For Bill, a Fell pony outside of Cumbria is not a Fell pony. He believes that the trend towards keeping them as pets has had an adverse effect on the breed’s characteristics and ruggedness. “They’re not as good as they used to be, by a long way,” he says. “They are looked after better, on better ground. People are too kind to them. If I sell one and buy it back two or three years later, it’ll take two years to get acclimatised to the fell again.” His ponies spend most of the year on the common above the farm. He brings them in-bye (back to the farm) at the start of June for foaling and they go back on the fell at the end of September. “The foals are a bit of work in the first year, with microchipping and passports, but after that they look after themselves,” he says. “There’s not very many really wild fell ponies any more. I sold my last four wild ones, and we haven’t got any now that you couldn’t put in a stable or put a halter on.”
Future in conservation
Today, the Fell Pony Society is working with the Rare Breed Survival Trust and Natural England to promote the Fell pony’s potential as a conservation grazer. “Perhaps because they are so successful as working ponies, Fells have not been used as much as other native breeds for conservation grazing,” says Rare Breeds Survival Trust field officer Ruth Dalton. “There is, however, a growing number of people recognising the advantages the breed can offer. They are not subject to the onerous tagging and movement regulations of farmed livestock. They are also relatively low
maintenance and hardy, so they can cope with difficult terrain and rough grazing.” Conservation grazing schemes may offer an opportunity to put Fell ponies on new upland locations. However, the requirements of such schemes for animals that can be easily moved on and off sites means they will be unlikely to use the hefted semi-feral animals. With fewer people running the ponies, Bill is concerned the iconic free-ranging herds will disappear. Environment schemes can mean farmers being paid not to keep animals on common land. Bill estimates keeping ponies on the fell costs him approximately £3,000 a year in subsidies. However, for him and the handful of enthusiasts who continue to run ponies on the fells, it is all about love, not money. “You don’t keep them for profit; you make nothing. They’ve got to be in your blood,” he says. Today, the sight of these sturdy, hairy ponies ranging the northern fells may be increasingly rare, but it remains one to treasure. It is a connection with the past, and an example of a breed that has adapted perfectly to its surroundings.
Bill Potter’s Fell ponies are good tempered, despite their feral instincts. Fells come in four coat colours and he breeds all of them. The Fell pony’s plentiful mane and forelock are left to grow long. It has bright, intelligent eyes, and neat, well-formed ears. Strong and hardy, Fell ponies have large rounded feet, making them sure-footed in rough terrain, and long silky tails.
Fell ponies exhibit intelligence and self-preservation, enabling them to adapt to their harsh conditions. They become familiar with the best grazing spots and water sources on the land they know as home.
The ponies range the Cumbrian fells in search of food, such as purple moor grass, Molinia caerulea, heathland grasses and upland hay.
Fell ponies with glossy midnight black coats make an arresting sight at the breed’s stallion and colt show. Show classes for Fell ponies were held in Cumbria at Hesket New Market in 1894 and at Shap in 1895. The first Fells were registered in the Polo and Riding Pony Stud Book in 1898.