Painting Wild Ponies – PLUS Meet the Wild Ponies of the New Forest

How painting Dartmoor's wild ponies may protect them from rising motor accidents. Plus follow Ali Wood on a journey to the New Forest.

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An “alien glow” on Dartmoor

Dartmoor’s wild ponies may be painted with blue stripes to make them more visible to motorists, following a record-breaking 60 pony deaths on the moor’s roads this year.

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The idea was developed by Karla McKechnie, livestock protection officer for The Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society (DLPS) who was inspired by a project in Finland where reindeer antlers had been painted.

The blue paint is being tested on privately-owned ponies to see how durable it is, and reflective beads will later be added which will show up in car headlights. Karla McKechnie told BBC News that “Motorists will not be able to tell it’s an animal, they’ll just see this alien glow, which might be able to reduce the speed of these motorists,” although she added that, “These horrible incidents would not happen if motorists drove with greater care and anticipated that Dartmoor grazing stock regularly wander on to the roads.”

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Find out more about the native pony breeds that have roamed Britain for some 130,000 years, here.

Read on… Ali Wood meets the wild ponies of the New Forest.

They have roamed the New Forest since the last Ice Age, were drafted into the French Wars of Religion in the 16th century and later served with the New Forest Scouts in the Boer Wars. Today, semi-feral ponies play a vital role in preserving the rare habitat of this national park. 

When the leaves of ancient oaks turn copper and bronze and the floor is carpeted in acorns, a flurry of activity begins in the New Forest. The pigs are let loose and the verderers – the 10 people appointed custodians of the forest – work long days gathering thousands of wild ponies in drifts as they prepare for the harsh winter conditions.

The New Forest is the largest remaining area of lowland heath in Europe, which, combined with woodland, rivers and valley mires, makes it a popular tourist destination. The ponies, known as the ‘architects of the forest’, play a crucial role in preserving this rare ecosystem, their grazing evident in the close-cropped lawns and the ‘browse line’ on the trees.

Chestnut mares grazing on grass, gorse and bracken, nuzzling foals and flicking manes may seem a familiar sight to visitors – after all, there are over 4,500 ponies in the New Forest. But preserving the purebreds is a vital task, as Jane Murray, secretary of the New Forest Pony Breeding and Cattle Society, explains.

“New Forest ponies are part of our cultural heritage, our history and our families,” she says, “but they’ve now been categorised as a rare breed as the number of breeding females has dropped below 3,000.”

The society manages the stud book, which registers all the pure and part-bred New Forest ponies. To qualify as a purebred, ponies have to meet certain criteria. They can be no taller than 148cm and any colour except piebald, skewbald, spotted or blue-eyed cream. Blue eyes are not permitted, nor are white markings other than on the head and lower limbs.

While the ponies in the New Forest appear to be wild, each one in fact belongs to a commoner (landowner) who exercises a legal right to turn out livestock, a right granted in 1217 by the Charter of the Forest. Before this, Forest Law instigated by William the Conqueror had made it illegal for peasants to hunt, enclose their property or take firewood; and under the rule of his son William Rufus, killing a deer was a hanging offence. The repealing of this law in the 13th century was much welcomed, and Rights of Common, which are attached to land holdings, were restored and still enforced today.

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The Brock pony is the oldest single-line pedigree in the New Forest, dating back to 1870. No outside female blood has been added to
the herd and the descendants, who bear the Brock prefix and the brand GY, still run the forest today. 

Dionis Macnair has lived all her life in the Forest and has been an elected verderer (appointed by the Commoners) for over 30 years, for which she has received an MBE.

“The old bloodlines, particularly the mare lines that have been bred on the forest for eight to ten generations, are completely adapted to their surroundings,” she explains. “These mares hold their condition throughout the winter and have a tolerance to the local bugs and parasites.”

War Horses

The existence of equines in the south of England predates the last Ice Age. In 1517, mounts from the New Forest were shipped to the French Wars of Religion. In the Boer Wars, they served in South Africa with the New Forest Scouts mounted infantry. Yet despite the ponies’ hardiness, the Victorians aimed to ‘improve’ the New Forest breed by introducing outside breeds, something Dionis describes as disastrous. For example, Arab crosses, chosen for their pretty dish faces and prominent eyes, suffer serious health problems, as their face shape restricts their teeth’s growth and can curtail their lives.

“It’s taken us about 60 years to improve the quality of the breed, which we’ve done by cutting down the number of stallions,” says Dionis. “We hoped it would increase the price, but unfortunately this hasn’t worked, because of the downturn in the economy.”

Every year foals are taken from the drifts for auction at Beaulieu Road Sales, but prices have dropped recently. With reduced demand for ponies, responsible breeding is essential. The verderers have cut back to using 10 purebred stallions a year for 30 days, although this narrows the gene pool. Previously, there would have been 100 stallions turned out year round.

Dionis explains some of the challenges of using fewer stallions: “We have higher numbers of seven- to 10-year-old purebred mares who’ve never got in foal. Any geldings in the area would consider the stallions interlopers and chase them away and the stallions that did get through would be hogged by the greedy old mares!”

Another problem are the low fences, which, according to 11th-century Forest Law, were built no higher than 3ft 6in in order to let the King’s deer pass. “I once wanted to get a seven-year-old mare in and put her to a stud stallion,” says Dionis. “She wasn’t even 13 hands, but the fence was absolutely no barrier to her. She sailed over that, the bank and ditch beyond it from a standstill!”

The New Forest drifts take place from August to October and are organised by the verderers. Skilled commoners on horseback round up the ponies and herd them into a pound where they’re tail-marked, wormed, given collars and a health check. Any ponies not in good condition are removed by their owners. “It doesn’t always go to plan,” says Dionis. “Even in the best conditions we get no more than 75% of the ponies. Some come in on two or three different drifts – you can tell by their newly marked tails, which show the owners have paid their annual fee. Then there are always a few cunning old mares who emerge from the bushes just as we’re going home!”

Drift Dodging

Ironically, while managing to dodge drifts some of the ponies still happily make their way to the villages where they get fed by tourists. Not only is this dangerous to the people feeding them, who may be kicked or bitten, but it’s bad for the ponies, who can die if they eat the litter. Even acorns, if eaten in excess, are poisonous to them, which is why up to 600 pigs are let loose each September during ‘pannage’ to hoover up fallen acorns, beech mast and crab apples.

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Another threat to the ponies is the commuter traffic, especially in the autumn when the clocks go back. The installation of a speed camera, a 40mph limit and the use of reflective collars have dramatically reduced collisions, but even so around 100 animals are killed each year. “Having a variable speed limit doesn’t help,” says Dionis. “People forget to check their speedometer when they enter the villages, which are a 30mph zone.”

Now 85, Dionis has seen a lot of changes in her lifetime as a verderer, pony breeder and judge. She believes the biggest threat to the survival of the New Forest Pony isn’t tourism, traffic or even imported horses. It’s the decline of the purebreds.

“If you lose these old mare-bred lines, the problem is you lose the ability to adapt. You lose all the genetic variety in five generations unless you have at least one stallion to 30 mares, and we’ve got ten stallions to hundreds of mares. We need to ensure these old bloodlines continue to breed, and we need to move quickly.”

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Words by Ali Wood and Agnes Davis