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Conserving Britain's last wild ponies: ponies have been roaming freely in Britain for as long as four millennia. Just a century ago, an estimated 10,000 untamed animals were an integral part of our remotest landscapes. But today, relatively few survive, with potentially alarming consequences for Britain's rich biodiversity.

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The exhilaration of watching a stallion gallop across a common; the sombre beauty of a herd grazing peacefully on rolling moorland; the seemingly never-ending line of mares with following foals traversing a ridge during the autumn roundup--encounters with wild ponies have long been a central part of our enjoyment of the UK countryside.

Recently, however, such encounters have become increasingly uncommon, with the overall population of wild ponies rapidly dwindling in the face of several unprecedented threats. The remaining herds represent a disappearing way of life for both the ponies and their owners. And the decline is taking place just as we're beginning to understand the beneficial effects that these ponies can have on our native flora and fauna.

UNCERTAIN ORIGINS

The origin of Britain's native ponies is uncertain. The first ponies migrated here from continental Europe as long as 100,000 years ago, later becoming cut off when the English Channel formed. Remnant populations of this prehistoric pony, or a similar pony reintroduced by the Celts, survived on isolated uplands and in remote valleys between 2,000 and 4,000 years ago. Today's ponies are descended from populations that have existed since Celtic times, each becoming geographically isolated as human settlement divided up the landscape.

Britain's wild ponies eventually became an integral part of everyday life. Tamed individuals pulled Saxon ploughs, shepherded Norman flocks, helped drove cattle and served as pack animals. More recently, they were bred to pull recreational traps, work farms and mines, and haul coal and food.

But by the early 20th century, railways and motorised transport had brought about a reduction in wild pony numbers. Although they remain excellent riding and driving stock, few are used in their traditional roles today.

The small number of truly wild ponies that remain in the UK are mostly relegated to corners of the remotest Scottish islands and the highest Welsh mountains. The ponies that we think of as running wild are actually 'semi-wild' or 'semi-feral' ponies that are rarely handled and aren't fully controlled by their owners. The majority are owned by farmers and dedicated breeders who often belong to one of Britain's ten official native-breed societies, which were set up to protect Britain's pony heritage.

All semi-feral society-registered ponies have pedigrees. Their ancestors ca n be traced, usually over more than a century, in carefully compiled stud books. Seemingly forgotten by all but their most ardent admirers, semi-feral pedigree herds have declined alarmingly in number and size over the past 30 years, and many unique breedlines face extinction.

Upland herds--those that live at altitudes above about 200 metres--are particularly threatened. 'The Welsh mountain pony breed isn't under threat, but the pony in its traditional surroundings is,' reckons breeder Colin Thomas, secretary of Wales' Pony Improvement Societies. Bill Potter, a lifetime farmer-breeder from Shap at the western edge of the northern Pennines in Cumbria, agrees. 'In ten years' time, there will be no fell ponies running wild on the fells,' he says. Last year, only 760 semi-wild Welsh mountain mares remained, scattered throughout Wales, and fewer than 150 semi-feral fell pony foals were born in England.

'Ponies are in decline for economic reasons,' explains Roland Michell, veterinary surgeon of the Welsh Pony and Cob Society (WPCS). Farmers are being increasingly discouraged from breeding pedigree stock; with the notable exception of the Horserace Betting Levy Board, which has consistently helped semi-feral herds to survive, there is inadequate financial incentive.

The cost of rearing foals for auction, especially colt foals, often exceeds the selling price at autumn markets. The saleable value of Welsh mountain ponies has decreased to 'probably 30 per cent of what it used to be in the early 1960s', says Emrys Bowen, a retired WPCS veterinary surgeon. 'Who wants to keep them to get nothing for the progeny?'

Restrictive regulations that curtail breeders' traditional grazing rights on some commons are exacerbating this situation. Even worse, most breeders are nearing retirement and aren't being replaced. 'There is a lack of interest by the younger generation,' Michell says.

MANAGEMENT ROLE

So, does the decline in semi-wild herds matter? Surely we can preserve the different breeds on enclosed farmland, in lowland studs and in 'artificial' or 'show' herds.

Semi-wild indigenous ponies represent a valuable part of Britain's cultural heritage, as well as a largely unexploited tourist attraction. More importantly, however, they have a vital role to play in the management of some of Britain's most important habitats.

Because they graze and browse selectively, the ponies create a mosaic of interspersed taller and shorter vegetation, which benefits invertebrates, birds and small mammals. They thrive on rough grazing, are more likely than cattle to eat poor-quality forage, and are often ideal for grazing sensitive wetland sites that can't withstand heavy trampling. Unlike sheep and cattle, they generally take little heather, encouraging seed germination and optimal heather management.

Native ponies will graze coarse grasses with fine grasses, eat coarse herbs, sedges and rushes, browse gorse and deciduous regrowth, and dig out roots. Some breeds will trample bracken stands, helping to suppress scrub encroachment, shrub and tree seeding and an over-dominance of woody species. Because many breedlines tend to avoid conspicuous flowers and don't preferentially graze flower heads, rare flowers and invertebrates can thrive.

Untamed ponies have other special assets. With their hardy constitutions, they don't need much maintenance, requiring only minimal routine husbandry. They're resourceful and adaptable, maintaining excellent body condition when living outside year-round if sufficient wild forage is available. Ponies cope well on exposed cliff, marsh and moorland sites, needing only natural shelter, and develop woolly winter coats to withstand extreme weather.

Organisations such as the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Countryside Council for Wales, the Forestry Commission and Wildlife Trusts already employ ponies in local grazing schemes. More than 500 unregistered -that is non-pedigree--ponies are currently employed by grazing organisations in Wales alone.

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Through appropriate sustainable grazing, ponies are helping to prevent further biodiversity loss and are assisting its recovery on many sites, including Sites of Special Scientific Interest, which often lie within national parks. The disappearance of semi-wild ponies from British national parks 'would seriously reduce the options available for achieving effective conservation of priority biodiversity habitats', says Paul Sinnadurai, the Brecon Beacons National Park ecologist.

And the need for semi-feral ponies in conservation roles is likely to increase: recent agricultural policy reform across the UK is leading to considerably reduced sheep and cattle farming in some regions, especially in the uplands. 'Careful and appropriate grazing can mean the difference between wildlife thriving or vanishing completely', explains Charles Morgan, project officer for Pori Natur a Threftadaeth (the Welsh Grazing Animals Project). 'The effects of past overgrazing can't necessarily be reversed by just reducing stocking rates. Land that has been undergrazed can often be as poor in value to wildlife as land that has been grazed and trampled by too many animals.'

Remarkably few semi-feral pedigree ponies are currently used in British conservation grazing schemes. Instead, some government-funded and private conservation agencies have relied largely upon unregistered, non-pedigree ponies of unknown origin. Some land management agencies prefer to use foreign equine breeds--for example, the Polish konik horse or the Asian Przewalski's horse--in conservation programmes. In other cases, native ponies are imported from other parts of the UK. But as well as further hastening the demise of some local pedigree herds, these practices can potentially undermine the conservation work. 'It's important to choose ponies of local origin; says fell pony breeder Roger Cartwright, who provides a conservation grazing service on the Lancashire border. 'Local strains have evolved over long periods to cope with local conditions!

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PROVIDING INCENTIVES

Although appropriate government support is essential, the survival of semi-feral breedlines will ultimately depend on whether breed societies can successfully market the progeny of their semi-feral mares for conservation purposes. 'We have to provide incentives to graze with ponies, with individuals and organisations buying and selling animals to improve wildlife/says Sinnadurai.

Action is needed sooner, rather than later. And the signs are promising: governments, land managers and farmer-breeders are increasingly recognising the genetic worth and unique conservation potential of the semi-wild pony.

The goals of sustainable landscape management, optimal biodiversity conservation and maintaining farmer-breeder traditional lifestyles in Britain are intimately related. These goals will only be attainable if the genetic complement of the remaining semi-feral indigenous herds is conserved and appropriately managed.
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Title Annotation:Wild ponies
Comment:Conserving Britain's last wild ponies: ponies have been roaming freely in Britain for as long as four millennia.
Author:Murray, David Anthony
Publication:Geographical
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 1, 2008
Words:1401
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