Cum­bria’s free-roam­ing ponies

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Words and pho­tog­ra­phy: Steve and Ann Toon

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.

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