The Benefits of the Breyer Fell Pony Model

Breyer model of Fell Pony “Carltonlima Emma”  courtesy Karen Hess

Breyer model of Fell Pony “Carltonlima Emma”
courtesy Karen Hess

Were you like me and had Breyer horse models as a kid?  I remember going to Village Drug in Lake Oswego, Oregon with my mother and longingly looking up at the window sill where all the Breyer models were displayed.  On those rare occasions when my savings allowed me to indulge, I would purchase the only type of horse I was allowed to own as a child.  Of course the very first one I bought (you won't be surprised to hear this! ) was a pony - Misty of Chincoteague!

A friend apparently still has Breyer models on her mind because she exclaimed with enthusiasm when she discovered that there is a Breyer model of a Fell Pony.  The Breyer model is named Carltonlima Emma, after Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite riding pony.  It is a part of Breyer’s “Best of British” series. 

The path to this first Fell Pony Breyer model began in 2000, according to Mary Jean Gould-Earley of Laurelhighland Farm in Pennsylvania. (1)  It took several years, but eventually sculptor Kathleen Moody created a clay model in 2014 based on the Fell Pony stallion Waverhead Model IV owned by Laurelhighland. (2)  A year later, resin copies colored in bronze and black were created of the model, and Breyer bought the rights to the sculpture. (3)  Breyer then worked with Her Majesty to name the model after the Queen’s pony.  In January of 2016, the first Fell Pony Breyer models went on sale in the United States (2015 in England).

Live Fell Ponies are a part of Breyerfest, the annual event at the Kentucky Horse Park.  Littletree Tia Maria of Scalfell Pike Fell Ponies and Littletree Born Supremacy owned by Alison Wolfe are annual attendees, with other ponies occasionally joining in.

Of course, to the practiced Fell Pony eye, the Breyer model is a bit of a conundrum.  It’s odd to see a stallion’s body with a mare’s name on it.  Apparently Breyer removed the obvious male parts when they decided to name the model after the Queen’s mare.  It also appears that limited edition versions of the model were produced in other colors not representative of Fell Ponies – chestnut and silver dapple – and were still called Fell Ponies.  Seventy six of the chestnut were made for an event in 2016 called Chasing the Chesapeake, a collector’s event.  Only one of the silver dapple was made for Breyerfest 2017.

The good news is that, regardless of gender or color, a portion of the proceeds of sale from the Carltonlima Emma model are being donated to the Fell Pony Society in England.(Her Majesty is Patron of the Fell Pony Society.) Girlguiding, another of the Queen’s favorite charities, also receives donations similarly.  In the Autumn 2018 edition of the Fell Pony Society magazine, our Secretary reported, “We are continuing to receive royalty payments on sales of the Breyer model of the Fell Pony ‘Carltonlima Emma’ the pony that HM The Queen rides.” (4)  You can see the most recent pictures of Her Majesty riding Emma by clicking here.

All the benefits of Breyer’s choice of a Fell Pony to be a model and to include Fell Ponies in Breyerfest are still to be discovered.  At present, at least, the choices speak highly of our breed’s position in the equine world.   And that our Society is receiving payments from sales of the model is a benefit for which we can all be grateful.

  1. Email to the author from Mary Jean Gould-Earley dated 11/29/18.

  2. https://www.facebook.com/laurelhighland/photos/a.112415525457537/813785741987175/?type=3&theater

  3. https://www.facebook.com/laurelhighland/photos/a.112415525457537/1052399568125790/?type=3&theater

  4. Wilkinson, Katherine.  “Secretary & Treasurer’s Report – Autumn 2018,” The Fell Pony Society Magazine, Autumn 2018 – Volume 37, p. 10.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

Conservation Grazing

This is Section 6 (Conservation Grazing) of Part 2 (Supporting Information) of A Fells on the Fells Action Plan.  You can see the entire plan by clicking here.

Nicola Evans’ Fell Ponies at an open day courtesy Claire Simpson

Nicola Evans’ Fell Ponies at an open day courtesy Claire Simpson

Conservation grazing is the use of grazing animals to manipulate landscapes towards certain conservation goals.  Sometimes there are also incentives for using rare breeds of livestock.

  • The Fell Pony is currently being used as a conservation grazer in parts of its native terrain.  Click here to read more.

  • However, other breeds are also being used as conservation grazers in northern England and southern Scotland, suggesting there may be room for expanded use of Fell Ponies in the role.  Click here to read more.

  • Land managers in need of conservation grazers often need things to be easy.  Some organizations have created business models around conservation grazing.  Click here to read more.

There is good news about Fell Ponies and conservation grazing, and there is also work to be done to utilize more Fell Ponies on the landscape for conservation work.  Other breeds are utilized through not-for-profit organizations that are turnkey solutions for land stewards.  Could a similar not-for-profit utilize Fell Ponies?

The Business of Conservation Grazing

Nicola Evans' Fell Ponies perform conservation grazing at Oxenholme. Courtesy Claire Simpson

Nicola Evans' Fell Ponies perform conservation grazing at Oxenholme. Courtesy Claire Simpson

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm.

Most if not all the Fell Ponies doing conservation grazing at this time are doing it for their owners or close associates.  Some other mountain and moorland pony breeds, though, are being used for conservation grazing where cash may change hands and where an organization is a middleman between a breeder or breed association and a land owner.  I have been curious how those businesses have been set up to be successful.

Conservation grazing is the use of grazing animals to manipulate landscapes towards certain conservation goals.  Sometimes there are also incentives for using rare breeds of livestock. 

Much work must be done before conservation-grazing animals hit the ground of course.  The Thorpe family’s project with the Wellbrow Fell Ponies took a full twelve months of planning.  What the grazing animals choose to eat and how they impact the landscape must be known in advance to ensure that a particular conservation grazing project meets its objectives.  The Fell Pony is fortunate to have a passionate researcher, David Anthony Murray, researching and documenting Fell Pony grazing patterns to inform conservation grazing projects, including the one at Wellbrow.

There are opportunities for other conservation grazing projects for Fells, but one of the difficulties for the Fell Pony Society as the breed’s registered organization is that “Land is owned and managed by so many different organisations and private landowners that there is no single easy place or person to inform [that] you would like to be involved.”  (1)  In addition, “there are several grazing tasks out there but they need suitable ponies and flexible owners.  Some tasks are only for a few weeks, and might only need two ponies while others are much larger and may be over a longer period of time.” (2)

Two other native pony breeds are benefiting from taking conservation grazing to the next level:  from individuals involving their own ponies to a service that is a one-stop-shop for conservation grazing.  It is evident from reviewing materials from the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust and the Sussex Pony Grazing & Conservation Trust (which uses Exmoor ponies) that there is much more to running a conservation grazing service than just performing the ecological job.  The logistics of sourcing ‘suitable ponies’ and dealing with varying durations are examples of the ‘more’ that’s involved.

Sometimes education is needed before ponies can be considered for conservation grazing.  In their 2015 Prospectus, the Sussex Pony Grazing and Conservation Trust makes the case for native breeds of ponies as conservation grazers:

Many of the important wildlife habitats that exist in Britain today have been created through centuries of human management, often associated with grazing by livestock.  The effect of these activities is to consistently halt the natural plant ‘succession’, that is, the progression from lower plants through to the ‘climax’ vegetation’, usually woodland.  This creates what is called a ‘plagio-climatic’ or ‘semi-natural’ habitat, meaning a human-influenced habitat…  Over time, many species have evolved interdependently with these environments and therefore cessation of grazing and resultant habitat loss threatens their continued survival. (3)

Because native ponies have been part of shaping the environment and therefore the species that live there, they can also be appropriate choices for helping maintain the environment on which those species depend.

Here are common characteristics for the two native pony conservation grazing organizations, each of which has been underway for nearly a decade or more.

  • Organization:

    • The organizations are not-for-profits so that they can make use of volunteer labor, cash donations, and grants and don’t have to rely solely on charging a fee for service.

    • Each has an individual involved who has been the driving force behind the organization since its inception and before.

    • Each provides a turnkey solution, providing not only the ponies for grazing but also the staff and expertise for developing and then implementing a conservation grazing plan acceptable to all parties.

  • Pony Sourcing and Stewardship

    • Each is focused on a single breed of pony.  They understand intimately the behaviors and capabilities of that breed and can choose projects well suited to their ponies and their organization.

    • Each owns their own ponies.

    • Each emphasizes that the ponies need management if conservation grazing goals are to be achieved, and the organizations are set up to do the necessary management.

  • Networking

    • Each has relationships with the key conservation organizations, including Natural England, the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and wildlife organizations.

    • Each has also developed relationships with local authorities, private landowners, and law enforcement organizations.

  • Marketing/Promotion

    • Each organization has a website for promotion, but most of their referrals come from Natural England or their own clients.

  • Value Propositions

    • The value of these organizations to breeders is:

      •  a market for ponies, sometimes including non-breeding stock

      • increased awareness of the breed.

    • The value of these organizations to breed organizations is to be:

      • the focal point for inquiries about conservation grazing

      • the networker who connects opportunities with pony resources

    • The value of these organizations to landowners is three-fold:

      • No need for landowners to have their own stock year round when they may only be needed part of the year.

      • No need to develop specialized staff skills in-house to design and implement conservation grazing projects.

      • No need for capital outlay for stock and equipment.

Regarding the pony part of the service, providing ponies for grazing doesn’t mean just having a herd to loan.  For instance:

  • The organizations have to plan each project not only with the conservation goals of the project in mind but also the ponies.  Where will they get water, for instance?  Will they be able to reach all the areas that need their attention?  Are facilities in place to enable handling of the ponies when necessary?

  • Many conservation grazing locations are open to the public, so the ponies must have a suitable attitude towards people – wary enough to stand off and not be threatening to un-horse-savvy visitors but not so wary as to be afraid and unable to do the job they’re meant to do. 

  • Some projects are of limited duration and precise timing, so ponies must be delivered and then picked up on a particular schedule. 

  • The organizations retain responsibility for the ponies’ welfare – hooves, worming, general health, etc.  Often the ponies are checked by volunteers who may need training on equine stewardship, training which is usually developed and delivered in-house.

As the Fell Pony Society Conservation Grazing sub-committee pointed out in their article cited above, there are opportunities for conservation grazing out there but there is not a single place to go to find out about the opportunities.  Perhaps an enterprising Fell Pony enthusiast can create something similar to what has been created for the Dartmoor and Exmoor ponies, a not-for-profit focal point for Fell Pony conservation grazing.  The interest is obviously there from both the pony and the landowner side.

  1. Walker, Eileen A.  “Conservation Grazing,” The Fell Pony Society Magazine, Spring 2016 Volume 32, p. 66.

  2. Same as #1

  3. Prospectus 2015.  The Sussex Pony Grazing & Conservation Trust, http://sussexponygrazing.co.uk, p. 4/13

With thanks to Fell Pony enthusiasts Eddie McDonough and Judith Bean for providing pointers to Exmoor and Dartmoor pony conservation grazing projects.

Other Breeds in Use for Conservation Grazing

Nicola Evans' Fell Ponies perform conservation grazing at The Helm. Courtesy Nicola Evans

Nicola Evans' Fell Ponies perform conservation grazing at The Helm. Courtesy Nicola Evans

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm.

One might assume that British native ponies such as the Fell would be logical choices as conservation grazers where such grazers are needed.  Especially when such grazers are needed in the native ponies’ home terrain.  Not always, though, as Heidi Sands documented after visiting a reserve in Aberdeenshire in Scotland.

Prior to going to Strathbeg I couldn't understand why on earth they'd use Polish ponies in preference to using British native breeds (especially Scottish ones as it's in Scotland) but having been and seen the set up and their aim at Strathbeg it all becomes clear….The Konik breed… was successfully brought to Strathbeg for use as a conservation grazer two years ago….After considering other native breeds for the job, the Konik was chosen due to its largely quiet friendly nature and the ability to thrive in the wetland conditions without obvious damage to hooves and lower limbs. At times the ponies wade out belly deep in the water to avail themselves of grazing and are often to be seen moving from sandy spits of land through the wetlands. (1)

Heidi acknowledged in her article that the native pony breeds Eriskay and Kerry Bog may have been good choices for this particular project, but they are likely too rare to be available.  Availability is an important criterion in selecting conservation grazers, according to Ian Baker, Chief Land Agent of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (2). 

Any of us who have land management responsibilities know the attraction of easy, convenient solutions, so it’s understandable why readily available conservation grazers might be chosen over native breeds that may be local but aren’t necessarily easy to find or manage.  Certainly, though, there’s opportunity here for Fell Ponies, as pictures have been posted on Facebook of Fells wading belly deep in water to find something worth eating!

  1. Sands, Heidi.  “Visit to RSPB Reserve,” The Fell Pony Society Magazine, Autumn 2013, Volume 27.  The Fell Pony Society:  Great Asby, Appleby, Cumbria, England, p. 65.

  2. Murray, David.  “Letter to the editor,” The Fell Pony Society Newsletter Spring 2014 Volume 28, Appleby, Cumbria:  The Fell Pony Society, p.12.

Fell Ponies and Conservation Grazing

The Kerbeck Fell Ponies graze to improve habitat for butterfly breeding. Courtesy Christine Robinson

The Kerbeck Fell Ponies graze to improve habitat for butterfly breeding. Courtesy Christine Robinson

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 edition of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm.

Fell Ponies are being used as conservation grazers in parts of their native terrain.  At least three different conservation organizations have found Fells to be appropriate partners in conservation efforts. 

Here is a description about the work being done by Nicola Evans’s ponies:

“The Helm is a prominent hill near Oxenholme, south east of Kendal. The landscape conservation charity Friends of the Lake District [FLD] own 66 acres here and have Fell ponies grazing to carry out vital conservation work.  The Fell ponies remove the grass growth, helping to keep an open sward for wild flowers to flourish.” (1).

The area is being managed under a Higher Level Stewardship Scheme with the aim of improving the structure and species diversity of the grassland sward. The area is acid grassland with gorse scrub and some wetter rushy and fen areas around a small tarn. The FLD receive a supplement for having registered native breed animals there which also contribute to the gene pool, i.e. will be used for breeding.” (2)

The Kerbeck Fell Ponies owned by Christine Robinson are another herd that is being used as conservation grazers:

“Christine Robinson's ponies have been grazing land for the National Trust (NT) near Ennerdale in August and September for the last three years. Last year she was asked to leave the ponies on a little longer to ensure that the seeds from the plants that attract the native butterflies were well paddled into the ground.” (3)

The Thorpe family has worked with Natural England and United Utilities to put their hill farm into a ten year environmental stewardship scheme.  Their Wellbrow Fell Ponies and Galloway cattle are grazing a 49 hectare enclosure on their farm “to improve the habitat for bird life; encourage the growth of bog mosses, in particular sphagnum moss; and also to contribute towards the genetic conservation of native breeds at risk.” (4)

These accounts of successful use of Fell Ponies for conservation grazing are encouraging for at least three reasons:  1) that Fell Ponies have been found both available and suitable for the work, 2) that there are incentives for using breeding herds of British native ponies for the work, and 3) two conservation organizations have had good experiences with the breed.

  1. Walker, Eileen.  “Meet the Pony Day at The Helm, Oxenholme,” The Fell Pony Society Magazine, Autumn 2014 volume 29.  The Fell Pony Society:  Appleby, Cumbria, England, p. 79.

  2. Simpson, Claire.  “People and Ponies:  Conservation Grazing with Fells,”  The Fell Pony Society Magazine, Autumn 2012, volume 25.  The Fell Pony Society, Great Asby, Appleby, Cumbria, England, p. 75

  3. Same as #2.

  4. Thorpe, Andrew.  “Wellbrow Fell Ponies and Conservation Grazing,” The Fell Pony Society Magazine, Spring 2016 Volume 32, p. 66.

Shelley Goes Visiting

What a blessing it is to be having a real winter!  Normal amounts of snow that will hopefully keep the fire danger down this summer and will provide plenty of irrigation water for hay crops.  And what interesting timing.  With my husband gone, I’m now solely responsible for snowplowing and filling stock tanks and moving hay bales and all the other chores of the farm in winter (and I’m grateful for all the help I’ve been offered, too).  It didn’t take me long, though, to know that there aren’t enough hours in the day.

Restar Mountain Shelley III

It’s normal when practicing progressive breeding to have ebbs and flows in the size of a breeding herd.  As one works to produce better ponies with each generation, it’s common to retain daughters.  Then a need for a second stallion emerges, and the population grows.  Then when those daughters begin to produce offspring, it becomes time to select which females to retain and which to rehome to keep the herd size realistic.  

I knew I was reaching the point where I was going to have to make some difficult decisions this year.  With my husband’s passing, though, I began to see opportunities to reduce my pony population that I might not have seen otherwise.  For instance, I had kept my Fell Pony mare Restar Mountain Shelley III open (unbred). While I wasn’t interested in selling her, an idea occurred to me. My friend Tina has a two year old Fell that she hopes to eventually use for riding and driving. I thought Tina might find it appealing to have a full grown mare to ride until the filly is ready to go to work.

While the idea made sense logically, I wasn’t fully prepared for how much I would miss Shelley.  Fortunately, letting her go temporarily is already producing gifts.  Tina asked for some video of me working with her, so she would better know what Shelley responds to.  My heart was warmed when Tina observed how much Shelley enjoys being with me.  The feeling is definitely mutual!  Then I got the pictures here of Shelley encountering new beings in her life with quiet acceptance and curiosity.  That’s my girl!

Having Shelley go visiting has definitely freed up some time each day.  Her departure is the first of several.  My goal is to get from five paddocks of ponies down to two while I adjust to life without my husband.  It won’t surprise me at all if I’m back up to five paddocks again a few years out!

There is still a void here that Shelley used to occupy.  It is hard to see her stall empty, her tracks still in the snow, her voice not greeting me at feeding time.  But I take great solace from knowing Shelley will be coming back to me before long, and in the meantime Tina will have lots of stories to tell me about my girl.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

"God Must've Needed a Logger"

Don Val Lily

I had the brand inspector out to help me with paperwork to move a pony to a new home.  He said, “God must’ve needed a logger.”  He was referring to the recent death of my husband Don Ewy.

Don began his life in the woods working with a mule named Pete.  Pete worked loose-headed in the pole patch.  Don would hitch him to a bundle of poles, and Pete would head down the mountain with the load, stopping at the appointed spot, and waiting until he was unhitched and pointed back up the hill for the next load.  Pete knew his work and he knew quitting time.  At the end of the day he would not go back up the hill but instead go the other direction to where his harness was to be removed.

It was only natural, then, that Don would find jobs for my ponies in his business when we arrived in his life.  We did lots of skidding (though never loose-headed!), and we occasionally packed his chainsaw when he couldn’t drive to a work site.  The photo here shows him with two of my early Fells, Newfarm Valencia and Turkeytrot Sand Lily, when we took them to the woods to accustom them to the many sights and sounds of active logging.

I took Don to Cumbria three times, and always the highlight of our trips was walking on the fells.  He had traveled internationally once before, to Brazil, as a consulting forester.  He spent a good portion of that trip on the Rio Negro, a tributary to the Amazon, where he had to choose between piranhas in the water and enormous snakes in the trees.  He said his best option was always to know where the captain’s pistol was, so he could shoot himself rather than face either of the animate hazards.  I know he was more comfortable on the fells by a long way.

In the last few years, Don had become increasingly articulate about what a proper Fell Pony should look like and how they should move.  I always looked forward to discussing our newest foal or a picture I’d received of a pony.

When I first met Don, he told me his dad had died at age forty two, and he expected to do the same.  Then I learned I’d met him when he was forty-two.  Everyday thereafter was a blessing.

Each time we visited Cumbria, we were honored to be guests of Bill and Isobel Potter at the Greenholme Fell Pony Stud.  Like the Potters, Don didn’t mind challenging the status quo, more than once taking on land stewardship agencies when their decisions weren’t up to his standards.  Recently Don was worried for Bill and Isobel’s health due to the stress they’ve been under.  If you feel so moved, a remembrance to the Potters’ legal defense fund would be appropriate (click here) or to one of Don’s volunteer activities:  North Park (Colorado) Fire Rescue Authority or Jackson County (Colorado) Search and Rescue.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

Importance of Fell Ponies

A fell-bred pony leads the herd, the late Sleddale Rose Beauty

A fell-bred pony leads the herd, the late Sleddale Rose Beauty

This is section 2 of Part 2 of A Fells on the Fells Action Plan -Draft.

The purpose of this section is to describe why Fell Ponies matter, what a Fell Pony on the fell is, why Fell Ponies on the fell matter and how Fell Ponies on the fell fit within the breed.

  1. Fell Ponies are genetically distinct from other breeds. 

    1. Fell Ponies are second only to Exmoors in the purity of our genetics.  Click here to read more.

  2. Fell Ponies are classed as a rare breed.

    1. Click here to read about the Fell Pony according to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. 

    2. Click here for a detailed discussion of the Fell Pony as a rare breed. 

  3. The Fell Pony is named after its native terrain for a reason.

    1. Many characteristics of the breed are derived from centuries of living in the fell environment of northern England.  Click here to read more. 

    2. There are lots of different words used to describe where Fell Ponies live on vast open land with significant elevation change and with minimal human intervention.  Click here to read more.

  4. Fell Ponies on the fell are not believed to be genetically distinct from other Fell Ponies. 

    1. See section 4a of David Anthony Murray’s 2013 research (click here).

    2. A 2007 study of rare bloodlines indicated that most of the rare bloodlines in the breed are outside the upland herds.  Click here to read more.

    3. Another reason that Fells on the fells are not genetically distinct is described in section 5(2) below – because non-fell breeders must return to fell herds to retain type.

  5. Since Fell Ponies cannot easily be returned to the fell once they have lived elsewhere, it is likely, then, that Fell Ponies on the fell do have some characteristics that ponies raised elsewhere do not.

    1. Breeders away from the fells often find it necessary to return to fell-bred herds to retain type.  Click here to read more.

    2. Being hefted is one difference between fell-based ponies and ponies living elsewhere (click here to read more about research related to hefting and Fell Ponies.)

    3. It is possible Fell Ponies on the fell have different gut microbiomes than Fell Ponies raised elsewhere.  Click here to read more.

    4. While it is not often done, there is some hope for returning ponies to the fells.  To read more, click here.

  6. Ponies from upland herds are often considered truer to type than ponies bred elsewhere and are therefore important to the Fell Pony breed’s continuity.  Click here for a discussion.

  7. While foals born into upland herds have been increasing in number, research indicates that the proportion of fell-bred foals to the total number of registered foals is falling, a troublesome trend.  Click here to read the research findings.

The Fell Pony breed deserves recognition for its uniqueness.  Its status as a rare breed also makes it worthy of conservation efforts.  Fell/upland-bred ponies within the breed play a special role in preserving the breed’s type.  They too, then, are deserving of recognition and conservation.  That the proportion of fell-bred ponies is dropping in the breed should be a concern to all breed stewards.

The Falling Proportion of Fell-bred Foals

Figure 1 shows my best estimate of fell-bred ponies from 1981 to 2017 alongside data based on the Fell Pony Society’s list of hill breeders from 2007 to 2017. For years prior to 2007, in addition to my own knowledge of fell bred herds, I inquired of people with long experience with the breed.

Figure 1: This chart shows my best estimate of the number of fell bred ponies from 1981 to 2017, with the FPS numbers shown for 2007 to 2017. The trendline is based on my estimated number of fell bred foals.

Figure 1: This chart shows my best estimate of the number of fell bred ponies from 1981 to 2017, with the FPS numbers shown for 2007 to 2017. The trendline is based on my estimated number of fell bred foals.

The differences between my numbers and the FPS numbers are usually because a breeder wasn’t known to the FPS or a breeder previously on the list didn’t make sure they made the most recent list. In some cases the breeder may not have been a member of the Society at the time the list was compiled. For a list of prefixes by year behind the foal data, click here.

A trendline is shown for my count of fell-bred foals. That it is trending upward could be considered good news, although the last ten years have seen some disturbing variations in numbers. And as we’ll see below, there is another way to look at this information that isn’t good news.

Figure 2 shows the percentage of registered foals that were fell born from 1981 to 2017.  The average has been 39%; a trendline shows that the share of fell-bred ponies has been slowly dropping over the last three-plus decades.

Figure 2: Chart showing percentage of foals registered that were fell-born from 1981 to 2017 with trend line

Figure 2: Chart showing percentage of foals registered that were fell-born from 1981 to 2017 with trend line

Both fell-bred and non-fell-bred ponies have been a part of our breed since its founding.  In the first volume in the Fell Pony Society stud book (circa 1898), as many as half the ponies registered were bred outside Cumbria. (1)  In the first volume of the stud book that contains ancestors of today’s ponies, twenty-five percent of the ponies registered were bred outside Cumbria.  (2)  So the Fell Pony breed, as measured by registered stock, has never been exclusively made up of fell-bred ponies.

The trendline in Figure 2 highlights an important fact about the Fell Pony breed currently.  The ponies we have today are a product of all the generations of selection that have gone before.  At least for the past three plus decades, over one third of the breed population has been fell-born.

While numerically the number of fell bred ponies may be going up, the share of the breed they represent is going in the opposite direction, and this is not good news.  The ponies we love and admire today are a mixture of both fell-bred and non-fell-bred stock.  If the proportion of fell-bred stock in the breed keeps decreasing, the ponies of the future are likely to be different from the ones we have today because the proportion of their ancestors who are fell-bred will have decreased.

  1. The first volume of ‘The Black Book’ (Fell Pony Stud Book Registrations 1898-1980.  Penrith, England:  The Fell Pony Society) is actually labeled volume V.  Some entries do not show who bred the pony but the owner is listed as outside Cumbria.

  2. See “Inspection Schemes and Grading Up” in Morrissey, Jenifer, Fell Ponies:Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, Willowtrail Farm, 2013 for information on oldest registered ancestors of today’s ponies.

Truer to Type

There are a number of points that suggest that fell-bred Fell Ponies are considered truer to type than ponies bred elsewhere.  First is that some longtime non-fell breeders have found it necessary to preserve breed type in their herds by regularly returning to fell-bred herds for breeding stock (click here for that discussion).  Another point is that when hill breeders look for outcrosses, they often choose ponies from other fell-bred herds.  Finally, considering which ponies place in the most important Fell Pony shows is also instructive regarding where ponies are found to be most true to type.. 

Lunesdale Warlord, mutli-time Supreme Champion stallion, is an example of a fell-bred show winner. Courtesy Carole Morland.

Lunesdale Warlord, mutli-time Supreme Champion stallion, is an example of a fell-bred show winner. Courtesy Carole Morland.

Outcrosses

The second point about fell-bred ponies being truer to type is how hill breeders choose their outcrosses.  In my studies of the stud books of The Fell Pony Society, I always pay attention to how the long time hill breeders are breeding.  I’m especially watchful for when and how they choose breeding stock outside their own lines.  I have observed that, if hill breeders desire to bring in new blood, they most often choose ponies from other hill breeders rather than ponies from elsewhere.  This tendency suggests that fell-bred ponies are indeed different from other ponies and are therefore necessary to the continuation of the breed.

Placings at Fell Pony Society Shows

The final point about fell-bred ponies being truer to type is show placings at the most important Fell Pony Society shows.  Specifically I looked at ten years’ worth of placings for Supreme Champion and Reserve Champion at the Stallion and Colt Shows and the Breed Shows in Cumbria.  Of the thirty eight ponies placed, 71% were fell-bred, suggesting that in the eye of Society judges, fell-bred ponies are more likely to show proper type.  Even the Southern Show, farther removed from Cumbria, showed this tendency with 61% being fell-bred.

If there were no difference between fell-bred ponies and Fell Ponies bred elsewhere, then we would see a greater migration back and forth between fell herds and other herds, and we just don’t see that very often.

The Matter of the Microbiome

180805 Matty Theo mares Tika.JPG

As a breeder, I know that ponies I sell are affected by changes in location and management.  It’s therefore a topic I ponder on a regular basis since I’m finding new homes for ponies on a regular basis.  It was natural for me, then, to ponder the impact of change on an entire herd of ponies when I learned of changes afoot.  So when I then learned of research addressing the topic from a perspective I’d never considered before, I was immediately curious.

The research involved a comparative study of the gut microbiomes of two equine populations living adjacent to each other.  Gut microbiomes play crucial roles in health, “…such as training the immune system early in life, metabolism, and synthesis of vitamins.” (1)  The research was inspired by findings that in humans, “…lifestyle strongly influences the composition and diversity of the gastrointestinal microbiome.” (2)  The researchers hypothesized that domestication of equines, which involved a significant change in lifestyle, has impacted the quantity and diversity of their gut flora.  Similar changes have been documented in comparative studies of hunter-gatherers and modern day humans.  For the comparative analysis, the researchers studied a herd of Przewalski’s horses, thought to be the only undomesticated equine population, and a herd of domestic horses living on a range next door.  Both herds were in Mongolia.  The researchers used fecal microbiomes as a proxy for gut microbiomes.

The researchers found that the primitive horses had distinct and more diverse populations of fecal microbes than the domesticated horses.  They also found that the primitive horses that had been born in zoos and relocated to the wild range had a different microbial profile than the primitive horses that had lived their entire lives in more natural conditions.  The researchers concluded that it was likely that diet played at least a partial role in the different microbial populations.  The dietary differences were in part due to availability but also due to choice.  The exact role of dietary influence on microbiome populations requires further study.

The reason that I had been pondering the impact of change in location and management of an entire herd of course has to do with Fell Ponies.  A herd of Fell Ponies has recently been moved onto a fell farm in Cumbria.  Many of the ponies have never been on a fell, and the common knowledge in our breed is that it takes Fell Ponies homed away from the fell years if ever to adjust to being re-felled.  I have been pondering what questions we might ask to study this herd and its re-felling.

Questions about the fecal microbiome of the ponies hadn’t occurred to me regarding the herd being re-felled.  But this research suggests that there may be differences in microbiomes between ponies living on the fell and ponies living elsewhere. Perhaps there is a role for microbiome manipulation in helping ponies be re-felled.  It would be fascinating to find out!

  1. Metcalf, Jessica, et al.  “Evaluating the impact of domestication and captivity on the horse gut microbiome,” Scientific Reports, 14 November 2017, as downloaded 8/17/18 from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-15375-9.pdf

  2.  Same as #1.

In Awe of Hefted and Migratory Animals

I was pondering the refelling of the Globetrotter herd of Fell Ponies.  In the fall of 2018, they were moved by their owner Libby Robinson from France to Roundthwaite Common in Cumbria.  In the course of my pondering, I contacted a researcher about studying the refelling, and she suggested that hefting would be an interesting research angle for this unique opportunity to study refelling.  I had thought that hardiness would be the most important thing to consider, but when I began researching hefting, I quickly learned that I had taken it very much for granted.

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Yes, these ponies are tough and easy doers, but when on the fells, how do they know where to cross water when rain has swollen the streams?  How do they know where to take shelter to ride out a severe storm?  How do they know where to find the minerals they need to stay healthy?  How do they know where their home is when they are out on the commons?

Some new research on migratory animals sheds light on these questions.  Researchers at the University of Wyoming and other institutions looked at how migratory mammals – specifically bighorn sheep and moose – move across landscapes.  Two different populations of these animals were considered:  those that had been on the landscape for numerous decades and those that had been more recently relocated to a landscape.  What they found was that social exchange – likely between mothers and their offspring – played a key role in the animals’ abilities to optimally utilize their environments for survival and that the knowledge is passed across multiple generations.

Fell Ponies on the fells are often considered to be hefted.  While hefted can mean knowing what part  of a common is ‘home,’ and not leaving it, it can also additionally mean knowing the answers to the questions above.  Being hefted, then, is key to a Fell Pony’s survival on the fells.

Regarding the refelling of the Globetrotter herd, the researcher asked if there would be other ponies on the fell from which the Globetrotter ponies could learn.  It’s clear now how important that question is.  The Globetrotter ponies could learn from those other ponies to speed up their own hefting.  The Wyoming research found that animals relocated took twice as long to optimally utilize their range as animals who had been there for generations.

A summary of research about hefting contained similar information.  While the report was primarily about sheep, “…cattle and other animals are also sometimes hefted, examples are Galloway and Highland cattle, Welsh mountain, Fell and Dales ponies.”  (1)   The report echoed the Wyoming research’s emphasis on social exchange of information.  “If lambs go to the common with their mothers, they pick up a knowledge of their flock’s home territory and become physically adapted to the terrain.  The ewes pass on to the lambs their knowledge of the grazing boundaries, optimal grazing and shelter in different weather and at different times of the year, and so it continues down the generations.” (2)

When I brought my first ponies home for the first time, my mentor at that time said that when I put them in a new pasture, I needed to first walk them around the perimeter of it.  I thought this was for safety reasons, so they wouldn’t run into the fences.  And indeed that is likely an important reason to carry out this practice.  But now I wonder if this practice also lodges in the ponies’ brains a sense of home terrain like that they would learn from their herd mates or mothers.  I realize now that I don’t walk foals around pastures when I put them out with their mothers because I know the mothers know the boundaries.  And I assume new members of the herd also will learn boundaries from their herd-mates.  Be assured, though, that the next time there’s a new member of my herd, I’ll remember this research about social learning!

  1. “Literature Review on the Practice of Hefting,” p. 3, as found at http://sciencesearch.defra.gov.uk/Document.aspx?Document=BD1242_10164_FRA.doc on 4 Oct 2018

  2. Jesmer, Brett R. et al.“Is ungulate migration culturally transmitted?Evidence of social learning from translocated animals,” Science, 07 Sep 2018, Vol. 361, Issue 6406, p 1024

Fell versus Non-fell Fell Ponies

Greenholme Fell ponies

I have heard more than once that non-fell-bred ponies who are returned to the fells do not do well and may die.  I saw a pony once who’d been born on the fell then lived away for several years and then returned. Her hooves were dangerously long.  The hill breeder saw me gaping at them and told me that when ponies live all their lives on the fell they rarely need their hooves trimmed, but when they go away and come back, it’s a different story. 

I queried one long-time fell breeder about retaining hardiness off the fells.  The response was that it depends on type and age.  The larger types bred away from the fells probably can’t survive there if returned, nor can older ponies who have been gone most of their lives.

One long-time non-fell breeder has said, “I think you would find that generation to generation [the ponies] would grow up to height because they’re not having to strive to survive on the fell which is why it’s so important to keep ponies running in semi-feral herds in the Cumberland fells.  A stud like us here has to keep returning to the Cumbrian fells to bring in the old blood and the new blood that live up on the high Cumberland fells.“  (1)  Another long time non-fell breeder confirms, “Retaining the hardiness and type by using fell-bred ponies is very important.  I have seen ponies bred two to three generations away from the fell start to change and definitely lose type.” (2)

Most of us probably haven’t seen Fell Ponies bred two or three generations off the fell.  Most of us probably have ponies that, if they weren’t born on the fell, then their parents or grandparents were.  So most of us probably don’t realize how much the fells shape what a Fell Pony is, and therefore we don’t realize that when the fell is taken out of the pony, the pony is changed.  Our breed requires all of us to keep this in mind in order to ensure the future of the Fell Pony we so admire.

For a more detailed discussion about non-fell breeders returning to fell-based herds for outcrosses, click here.

  1. Charlton, Sarah, on Lord of the Fells:  A Celebration of the Lakeland Pony, BBC, circa 2007.

  2. Robinson, Christine, in “Returning to the Fell,” in Morrissey, Jenifer, Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, 2013, p. 202

Rare Bloodlines of the Fell Pony

This article describes research conducted in 2008 and which appeared in my first book about Fell Ponies.  More information about the book can be found at the end.

Considerations for a Rare Breed

The Fell Pony population worldwide continues to grow, and from a rare-breeds perspective, the breed is considered to be recovering.  Nonetheless, Fell Ponies are still considered rare by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in England and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

One of the challenges rare breeds face is a limited gene pool because of population bottlenecks in their history.  The Fell Pony has had at least two such bottlenecks, generally at the times of the two world wars. (1)  To maximize the genetic diversity that remains in the breed, it can be helpful to identify bloodlines that are becoming rare within the breed and develop conservation strategies for them.

The Search for Unrelateds

The new deceased Waterstolls Beauty II represents a rare bloodline. She is an example of conservation breeding: both her sire and dam represent rare bloodlines within the breed and passed that rarity to her. Photo courtesy Ian Smith, Bracklinn Fell Pony Stud

The new deceased Waterstolls Beauty II represents a rare bloodline. She is an example of conservation breeding: both her sire and dam represent rare bloodlines within the breed and passed that rarity to her. Photo courtesy Ian Smith, Bracklinn Fell Pony Stud

The search for rare bloodlines isn’t just a conservation strategy, however.Over the past several years as I have conversed with master breeders, searching for suitable outcrosses has often been a topic of discussion.These breeders are looking for ponies unrelated to their stock to continue their breeding program.The problem is generally posed in terms of a need for a stallion, as the breeders wish to continue their mare lines.They are always on the lookout for ponies of sufficient quality from unused lines to breed to their newest fillies and sometimes to their oldest mares.When I visited Cumbria in 2005 and 2006, I was fortunate to see first hand the results of these breeders’ searches for unrelated blood lines.In my research since then in the stud books of the Fell Pony Society, the ponies I saw then have shown up as having rare blood lines.

Rare for a Reason?

As I’ve researched rare bloodlines, other ponies that I’ve seen in person have also shown up as having rare bloodlines.  They, however, have led me to ask a number of questions.  For instance, have these bloodlines become rare for good reason?  Have breeders left these bloodlines behind intentionally?  Were the ponies in those lines straying from the breed standard?  To my eye, the few ponies I’ve seen in this category were not good examples of Fell Ponies.  Perhaps their bloodlines are best left behind.  These examples point out the importance of considering the quality of the pony as well as the status of its bloodline before deciding to undertake conservation measures.

Equines present special challenges for breed conservation because they take so long to reproduce.  In addition, some of the most common faults in the Fell Pony breed – coarse heads, long backs and poor shoulder or hind leg conformation - take many generations to correct.  When a pony with a rare bloodline has one of these faults, is it worthy of the multi-decade effort it could take to improve the pony’s line and continue to include it in the breed?  Would enough genetic diversity remain to justify the time and effort? 

From a rare breeds standpoint, it is important to consider preserving rare bloodlines.  In general, I trust the decisions of long-time breeders in England regarding leaving some bloodlines behind.  Nonetheless, knowing which ponies have these rare bloodlines is important.  Some breeders may learn of the value of their breeding stock from a rare bloodlines perspective.  Perhaps others will become interested in evaluating some of the ponies as potential outcrosses and considering whether their contribution to the breed is worthy of a conservation effort.

Mean Kinship

Dene Rebel is on the list of ponies with rare bloodlines. He carries rare lines from the Dene Fell Pony stud in Northumberland. Photo courtesy the late Mrs. Ailie Newall, Dene Fell Pony Stud

Dene Rebel is on the list of ponies with rare bloodlines. He carries rare lines from the Dene Fell Pony stud in Northumberland.
Photo courtesy the late Mrs. Ailie Newall, Dene Fell Pony Stud

One tool that can be used to identify rare bloodlines is the Mean Kinship analysis.  Mean Kinship (MK) is a calculation that measures the relatedness of a particular pony to the rest of the ponies in a given population.  The Fell Pony Pedigree Information Service of raresteeds.com provided numerous mean kinship analyses for the breed.  When considering rare bloodlines, one of these analyses is of particular interest:  the breeding population in a particular year - the sires and dams of a particular foal crop.  This analysis indicates both which ponies represent rare bloodlines but also which ponies have been chosen by breeders as being worthy of being bred.  The last year for which this analysis was available was 2007. 

A low MK value means low relatedness to the rest of the population, hence a rare bloodline.    The table on page 15 lists the sires and dams of the 2007 foal crop that have a low MK value and therefore represent a rare bloodline.

There is one case when a low Mean Kinship may not mean a rare bloodline.  If a particular pony is itself inbred, meaning it has the same pony in its pedigree multiple times, it can have a low MK value.  The low MK value results from the fact that the pony has few relatives (because of replication of ancestors) to compare to the rest of the population.  Therefore, its low MK value doesn’t necessarily mean it has rare bloodlines.  To sort these ponies out, it is important to also look at each pony’s inbreeding coefficient (IC).  A high inbreeding coefficient indicates repetition within the pedigree, and a low inbreeding coefficient means the pony has lots of diversity in its history.  Therefore, for a pony to have rare bloodlines, it must have both a low MK value and either a low IC value or in the case of a high IC value, few replications of common ponies within its pedigree.

One pony in the 2007 parents list has this combination of a low MK value and repetition of a common pony in its pedigree:  Wellbrow Pegasus. (2)  Pegasus is very line-bred on Tebay Campellton Victor, a relatively common stallion.  Therefore, while Pegasus is unrelated to a significant portion of the Fell Pony population, he is not a representative of a rare bloodline because of the common stallion in his pedigree.

Limitations of MK Analysis

Kerbeck Night Destiny appears on the list of ponies with rare bloodlines, with Frizington Duke in her pedigree Photo courtesy Christine Robinson of the Kerbeck Fell Pony Stud, taken by Becky Sim, Dentview Fell Pony Stud

Kerbeck Night Destiny appears on the list of ponies with rare bloodlines, with Frizington Duke in her pedigree
Photo courtesy Christine Robinson of the Kerbeck Fell Pony Stud, taken by Becky Sim, Dentview Fell Pony Stud

In the Fell Pony, analyses based on pedigrees have their limitations.  In some cases, a pedigree ends just a few generations back; pedigree depth can be limited for a number of reasons, including the inspection scheme used a few decades ago.   Another challenge is the veracity of the pedigrees themselves.  From the first day I encountered Fell Ponies, I’ve been warned that the pedigrees on older ponies may not be accurate for a variety of reasons.  So analyses like MK and IC based on pedigrees must be considered with these limitations in mind.  There may be rare bloodlines within the breed that do not show up in pedigrees, and there may be ponies with supposedly rare bloodlines that are actually quite related to the rest of the population.  Most long-time breeders in Cumbria understand the realities behind Fell Pony pedigrees.  Here again is a reason why I put a lot of trust in the decisions that long-time breeders have made to use certain ponies in breeding programs and to leave other bloodlines behind.





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Findings

Keeping in mind that certain bloodlines may be rare for a reason and that Mean Kinship analyses have limitations, there were some interesting patterns that emerged during my research:

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  • ·         Several prefixes were common in the pedigrees of ponies with low MK values.  The four prefixes I saw frequently in the pedigrees of ponies with rare bloodlines were:  Greenfield, Hades Hill, Sleddale and Waverhead.

  • · One Lownthwaite pony, Starturn, shows up quite often as an ancestor to ponies with rare bloodlines.  At right is a table showing other ponies that frequent pedigrees of ponies with rare bloodlines.  The table also shows the percentage of the 2007 foal crop with this pony in its pedigree.  Starturn is the only mare in the list.

  • · Several ponies from the Kerbeck stud crossed my path during my research, and they usually went back to the stallion Frizington Duke, who appears rarely in most Fell Pony pedigrees.

  • · Greenfield Gay Lad appears in the list of ponies with rare bloodlines himself, as do some of his progeny who are being used as breeding stock.  Gay Lad often passes his rarity to his offspring.

  • · Two long-time Fell Pony studs located in Northumberland have more than one pony on the list of rare bloodlines:  the Dene ponies bred by Mrs. Ailie Newall, and the Linnel ponies bred by the Charlton family.  Mrs. Newall’s mare lines go back to the very early Linnel ponies bred by the Charltons, and the recent Linnel ponies of the Charltons often have the stallion Linnel Romany Boy in their pedigrees or Sleddale stud lines.  The breeding stock of both these Northumberland studs has generally not traveled back to Cumbria to mix in with the majority of the breed’s population.  This has led to the Dene and Linnel ponies generally having distinct bloodlines from the rest of the breed.

  • · Three of the ponies on the list reside in North America:  Lownthwaite Monarch and Hades Hill Freya, imported by the Laurelhighland Stud in Pennsylvania, and Ravenscairn Selkie at the Braeberry Stud in Oregon.

Examples of Conservation Breeding

Greenfield Gay Lad is on the list of ponies with rare bloodlines and shows up in the pedigrees of several ponies that are also on the list. Photo courtesy John Slater

Greenfield Gay Lad is on the list of ponies with rare bloodlines and shows up in the pedigrees of several ponies that are also on the list. Photo courtesy John Slater

While conserving rare bloodlines is important for maximizing the gene pool in a rare breed, it is also important for making outcrosses available to breeders, as my conversations with master breeders have shown.  To accomplish this second objective of conserving rare bloodlines, maintaining the rarity of those bloodlines is important so that they can serve as useful outcrosses into the future.  Maintaining the rarity of those bloodlines is accomplished by breeding the rare bloodlines to each other rather than to more common bloodlines, which would dilute them.  There are two notable examples of this strategy in the list of ponies with rare bloodlines.

Waterstolls Beauty II is an example of two rare bloodlines crossed to preserve rarity.  Her sire is Greenfield Gay Lad, also in the rare bloodlines list.  Her dam, Waterstolls Beauty, made the rare bloodlines list when she was being bred a decade ago.  Beauty’s dam is from the Greenfield stud, ponies from which repeatedly show up in pedigrees with rare elements.  Her sire, Waverhead Rob, is on the list of ponies that show up in pedigrees with rare elements.

The second example takes a different approach to conserving rarity:  linebreeding.  Greenhead Alfred’s parents are half-brother and half-sister; his grand-dam on both sides was Boltonabbey Blackbird, herself on the rare bloodlines list when she was being bred several years ago.

The Art of Rare Breeding

Lownthwaite Monarch, shown at five years old, represents a rare bloodline. She comes from old Linnel and Sleddale lines. She was imported by the Laurelhighland Stud in Pennsylvania

Lownthwaite Monarch, shown at five years old, represents a rare bloodline. She comes from old Linnel and Sleddale lines. She was imported by the Laurelhighland Stud in Pennsylvania

Breeding high quality animals is an art, especially when breeding is constrained by a closed stud book and a written standard as the Fell Pony breed has.  Producing high quality animals within the context of a rare breed takes that art to a higher level.  Consistently producing high quality over time requires finding suitable outcrosses, which in a rare breed is challenging because the gene pool is already limited.  The work of identifying rare bloodlines that can supply outcrosses is time-consuming.  Then the quality of those outcrosses must be assessed.  Improving the quality of the outcrosses without losing their genetic diversity is one more hurdle that is especially challenging in equine breeds because of their long reproductive cycle.  Long-time breeders of the Fell Pony have been making trade-offs between relatedness and quality since their involvement with the breed began.  It will be up to thoughtful breeders of the Fell Pony to determine if the ponies on the rare bloodlines list presented here are worthy of a conservation effort for the genetic diversity they represent.

Note on footnotes: raresteeds.com no longer exists but the data is in possession of the author.

  1. Murray, David Anthony.  The Fell Pony:  grazing characteristics and breed profile – a preliminary assessment.  2005, Earthwatch Institute, p. 42, citing Dr. Gareth Thomas’ PhD dissertation.

  2. Pedigrees of ponies with low MK and high IC were reviewed and replications identified.  Greenhead Alfred and Wellbrow Pegasus were the only ponies in this class in the 2007 parents list.

  3. Courtesy Fell Pony Pedigree Information Service of raresteeds.com.

  4. This list compiled from Sires and Dams with foals in 2007 that have low MKs and low ICs and more than four generations in their pedigrees.Courtesy raresteeds.com Fell Pony Pedigree Information Service

This article appears in the book Fell Ponies: Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here.

The Fell in Fell Pony

Lunesdale ponies on Roundthwaite Common

Have you ever wondered why the ponies that we admire aren’t called Westmorland Ponies or Cumberland Ponies or Border Ponies or Pennine Ponies? Or Eden or Lowther or Derwent or Duddon Ponies?  Is there a reason they’re so rarely called Galloways anymore?  While Fell Ponies are certainly found in what used to be Westmorland and Cumberland and the Borders and even Galloway, they are of course called Fell Ponies because of the fells they have called home for centuries. 

We all know that what makes a Fell Pony unique is because of those very fells.  Good knee and hock action and sure-footedness are required to handle the rough terrain of the fells.  Intelligence is required in order to find shelter, food, and water there.  Thriftiness is necessary to deal with less than ideal fodder.  Abundant mane, tail, and feather assist with shedding precipitation.   A broad forehead houses an intelligent mind capable of learning about and surviving without human assistance.  Small ears are less likely to be frozen during frigid weather.  Nostrils are large to take in abundant air when working to traversing steep terrain.   Muscularity and strength of body are similarly important to be able to move safely across the land.

Click here to read the breed standard.  What is your favorite tie-in from it to the fells that our ponies have called home for so long?

Words Describing the Native Ground of the Fell Pony

The Fell Pony is named after the local word for hill in Cumbria.  It is often said that many of the characteristics of the breed are due to the ponies’ lives on the fells.  When considering the role of fell-bred and non-fell-bred ponies in our breed, it’s first important to understand what a fell-bred Fell Pony is.  It turns out that the definition of fell-bred ponies can be unclear in part because the definition of fell ground is also unclear. 

Greenholme Jewel courtesy Bill Potter

John Slater of the past Greenfield stud, when asked what a fell-bred pony is, answered, “Funny one! Where does the fell start! At Greenfield some mares foaled on the fell and some would be brought down to the pastures to foal. The fell peaked at 1600 feet yet the lower fells are on a level with the pastures, in Greenfield’s case the pastures peaked at around 1100 feet above sea level.  My land is around 800 feet where my ponies Greenfield Rose, Osprey, Polly’s Lad, and Rhona were born, but we used to exchange our land in spring with a farmer, so the mares and foals went up above our land on the high fells for a few months.  Foals born on higher pastures or fields in the Yorkshire Dales or Cumbria could have almost as tough a time as fell-bred foals.” (1)

The word fell is derived from the Norse word fjall meaning mountain or hill and more particularly a high barren mountainous or moorland landscape.  The Norse are thought to have arrived in Cumbria around 925AD.  This definition based on the Norse is quite general.  Getting more specific, Wikipedia says, in Northern England “…the word ‘fell’ originally referred to an area of uncultivated high ground used as common grazing usually on common land and above the timberline.”  Wikipedia then settles on a less precise definition:  “Today, generally, ‘fell’ refers to the mountains and hills of the Lake District and the Pennine Dales.” (2)

So, is a fell common land or not, above timberline or not, exclusively in the Lake District and the Pennine Dales or not?  Given these questions, it’s understandable that The Fell Pony Society would find it necessary to develop their own definition of where a fell-bred pony must exist and then keep a list of hill breeders who breed them.  The Fell Pony Society began keeping that list in 2007. 

My understanding of the Fell Pony Society’s definition of a fell-bred pony is a pony that is born into a herd that spends all or part of the year above the fell gate, is registered with the Fell Pony Society, and whose breeder is a member of the Society.  As is often the case when precise definitions for things are created, some breeders who keep ponies at high elevation and/or run them on the fell are left off the Fell Pony Society hill breeder list. 

For instance, the Waverhead Stud Facebook page describes its location as “overlooking the Caldbeck Fells, on the edge of the Lake District in Cumbria.” (3)  Another description of the stud says:  “Waver Head is a rough, windswept hill farm in the Caldbeck Fell region (Cumbria) at 1000 feet above sea level, well suited for hardy Fell Ponies.” (4)  Similarly, the Banksgate stud isn’t considered a fell farm but runs its ponies above 1000 feet above sea level.

Native heath is another term that one sometimes encounters when considering where Fell Ponies live.  Heath or heathland is a certain type of grazing environment where some pony herds graze.  Native heath may or may not be above the fell gate so may or may not be considered fell.

Another place where terminology gets confusing about Fell Ponies is when they are said to be running on the fells in Cumbria in semi-feral herds.  Semi-feral is not an accurate description of how Fell Ponies are owned and managed today.  Fell Ponies are not alone in being inaccurately called semi-feral.  Wendy Williams, in her book The Horse:  The Epic History of our Noble Companion, discusses this terminology problem in reference to the Pottok horse breed.  Yet her conclusion seems valid also for Fell Ponies.  “’Feral’ implies that the horses were once thoroughly domesticated and then escaped to the wild.  This is not the case….  A more accurate word… might be ‘semi-managed.’” (5)  Like Pottok horses, Fells on the fell are not ponies that were once domesticated and then escaped to the wild.  While perhaps wild in spirit, they are not wild like the previously domesticated but now wild horses in North America that are indeed feral.   Instead, Fell Ponies on the fell are owned by people and kept on the fell in a semi-managed state, meaning they may or may not get supplementary feed during harsh weather, they may or may not be regularly wormed and see a farrier, and the mares may or may not come in for foaling and breeding. 

Greenholme ponies in snow courtesy Bill Potter

The Fell Pony breed is considered vulnerable by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) in England and moves between Watch and Critical with The Livestock Conservancy in the United States.  These organizations exist to ensure that livestock breeds don’t vanish.  When determining whether a breed merits conservation efforts, the breed is studied to determine, among other things, whether it is a landrace or a standardized breed.  Members of a landrace breed are selected primarily through their existence in a particular landscape.  Members of a standardized breed are selected against a breed standard.  Standardized breeds often evolve from landrace breeds; the Fell Pony is an example of that. (6)

RBST in its description of the Fell Pony highlights the influence of the landscape on the breed’s characteristics:  “Herds of free-ranging registered ponies still run on the Cumbrian fells, playing an important role in maintaining the Fell pony characteristics of hardiness, sure-footedness and thrift.”  (7)

In the Fell Pony breed’s first stud book, Mr. W.W. Wingate-Saul, around 1898, said, “…Their habitat (having been bred for centuries on the cold inhospitable fells where they are still to be found), has caused a wonderful growth of hair, the winter coat being heavy and legs growing a good deal of fine hair, all of which, excepting some at the point of the heel, being cast in summer.  Constitutionally they are hard as iron, with good all-round action, and are very fast and enduring.” (8)  With so many of the breed’s characteristics shaped by the fell environment, it’s therefore crucial to consider the future of the fell-bred Fell Pony if we are concerned about the future of the breed as a whole.

  1.  Slater, John.  Email to the author, May 12, 2018.

  2. “Fell,” wikipedia.com, as accessed 7/31/18

  3. “Waverhead Fell Pony Stud,” About page, facebook.com, as accessed 7/31/18

  4. Gould-Earley, Mary Jean.  “The Waverhead Fell Pony Stud,” Fell Pony Express, The Fell Pony Society of North America, Volume 10, No. 1, May, 2011, p. 7

  5. Williams, Wendy.  The Horse:  The Epic History of Our Noble Companion. New York:  Scientific American/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015, p. xx.

  6. Morrissey, Jenifer.  “The Flip Side of Fell Life,” Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, p. 74.

  7. “Fell Pony,” at rbst.org.uk, as accessed 7/31/18.

  8. Fell Pony Stud Book Registrations 1898-1980.  Penrith, England:  The Fell Pony Society, p. 1.

The Fell Pony as a Rare Breed

This is a slightly updated version of a chapter in my first book about Fell Ponies (see end for more information).

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The Fell Pony breed received some good news in 2006.  According to two organizations who track rare breeds, the Fell Ponies’ status as a rare breed improved.  The Rare Breeds Survival Trust in England moved the breed from endangered to vulnerable, and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy moved the breed from rare to threatened.  These organizations use the number of breeding females as a measure of breed strength, and indeed this number did improve.  Yet there are a number of other measures of breed health that these changes in status have not considered and that I think are worth pondering.

Number of Breeding Females

As mentioned above, the way that the scientists of the rare breeds organizations have measured the health of the breed is by the number of breeding females.  As the chart at right shows, foal registrations by year, an indicator of breeding female population, show a steady gain over the prior 20 years. 

breeding females.png

The numbers in the chart only measure foals registered with the Fell Pony Society (FPS) in England.  FPS has daughter societies in The Netherlands and Germany that register their own foals, so the numbers are even larger.  (There is a much smaller population of unregistered ponies in the UK and abroad.) 

The Rare Breeds Survival Trust used the number of breeding females to improve the status of the Fell Pony on January 4, 2006.  Their press release states, “…the Fell moves from Endangered to Vulnerable and may drop another category next year if numbers continue to improve.” (1) The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy used a similar method, though in ALBC’s case, they found sufficient genetic similarities between the Fell and Dales Pony breeds to combine the two for conservation purposes, thereby increasing the breeding population size and improving the rating of the breed.

 Genetic Diversity

One drawback of the breeding females statistic is that it doesn’t measure genetic diversity.  Fell Ponies have had a closed registry since 1969. (2)  While more and more foals are born each year, they are still coming from a very small historic population.  According to researcher David Murray (citing Dr. Gareth Thomas’s PhD dissertation), two genetic bottlenecks occurred during the middle of the 20th century. (3) 

When I bought my first Fell Ponies in 2000, I learned firsthand the modern manifestations of these bottlenecks.  One of my first Fells was a 13-year-old mare whom I intended to breed.  In preparation for breeding her, I undertook a study of her relatedness to all the licensed stallions in the breed worldwide at the time.  (There were only four licensed stallions in North America at the time, and two were sons of the other two, so I wanted to understand the broader population.)  I analyzed the pedigrees of 153 stallions.  My mare was related to 75% of them somewhere in the first three generations.  On top of that, she has repetitions in her own pedigree in the first three generations.  These findings led me to conclude that we have a limited gene pool in this breed indeed and need to take care in proclaiming the breed’s recovery. 

In a book published in 1963 -- Ponies:  Their Origin and Development in Britain by Daphne Machin Goodall -- the Fell Pony is described as “dangerously near to extinction.”  It states, “About thirty ponies are registered every year and there are probably between 300-400 Fell Ponies left.” (4)  Obviously the Fell Pony is much more numerous today, but such a small population in the recent past, in combination with a closed stud book, is another indication of the possibility of a limited genetic pool.

Breeding Population Size

Breeding animals by decade.jpg

The gene pool may be even more limited than one might think.  In my studies of Fell Pony registrations, (5) I have learned that only about a third of the female Fell Ponies born in a given year are ever used for breeding.(6)  So, while there may be 300 Fell Ponies born in a given year, only a portion of those will contribute their genetics to future populations.  My research has shown that today’s registered Fell Pony population is based on fewer than 70 animals in the 1930s, a very small genetic foundation indeed.  (For this analysis, I assumed a decade to be a good period to study breeding population size, based on my research findings.(7))  

The chart shows the size of the breeding population by decade that has contributed its genetics to the current population. (8)  During the decade of the 1950s, approximately 114 ponies were actively being bred to produce today’s registered population.  If Goodall’s population data in her book are accurate, then again only about 1/3 of the population of 300-400 ponies contributed its genetics to future generations.

Foal immunodeficiency Syndrome

While the size of the breeding population is important to scientists who stand outside the breed looking in, other concerns are the focus of Fell Pony breeders.  One of those concerns is Foal Immunodeficiency Syndrome (previously known as Fell Foal Syndrome).  Foal Immunodeficiency Syndrome (FIS) is a disease found in our breed as well as the closely related Dales and Gypsy Cob breeds (Dales Ponies are closely related and shared a studbook with the Fells until 1916; cross-breeding was allowed into the 1950s. (9) Fell Ponies have been used to create traditional colored cobs and the more formal Gypsy Cob and similar breeds.) 

I consider FIS a threat not because of the foals who die each year, which is of course tragic.  Instead, I am concerned with how the syndrome influences breeding decisions.    All major family lines in the breed are affected.  Given the genetic bottlenecks in the breed’s history, it is imperative that breeders choose their breeding stock based on the breed standard, not on whether ponies are carriers.  Rather than avoid carrier parents, we need to breed from them prudently.  I feel that the integrity of the breed could be at stake if the carrier status of a pony influences breeding decisions.

stallion show.jpg

Loss of Type

Whenever there is a discussion of Fell Ponies as a rare breed on one of the internet email lists, invariably someone asserts that loss of type is the greatest threat to the breed.  The discussions seem to assume that “type” is well understood.  A recent discussion defined “type” as being what the breed standard in its entirety describes.  I’ve concluded that “type” includes everything from the specifics of conformation in the breed standard to the attributes of hardiness, intelligence, and sure-footedness that often are used to describe the breed.  I’ve also concluded that a breeder with any history has a firm idea of what they like about the breed, a firm idea of what they are aiming for with their breeding program, and, often but not always, a firm belief that the type they are breeding is the true Fell Pony!

As an avid student of the breed, it appears to me that there is a divergence of type within the breed.  It also appears that this divergence of type has existed for over a century.  Hoofprints in Eden, a book by Sue Millard, states that during the 1950s, “there were two different types of Fell, the heavier ‘Cumberland’ pony and a lighter ‘riding type.’  To accommodate this, two different types of stallions were chosen [for the enclosure scheme.]” (10)   Clive Richardson’s 1991 book on the breed states that a trotting type was common in the 1880s that was lighter in bone and substance than the typical Fell of the period. (11)  

At the Fell Pony Society Stallion & Colt Show in 2005, it was easy for me to pick out different “types” of Fell Ponies, from those very pony-like with short backs and good substance to those bordering on horse-y-ness with longer backs, longer legs, relatively fine bodies, and big heads and/or ears.  All of these ponies of course fit within the breed standard but portray the diverse manifestations that the standard can have.

At the same time, the breed standard does provide a definition that some equines cannot meet.  I have seen Fell Ponies that barely fit within the standard, despite being bred from Fell Pony parents whose pedigrees go back generations.  It is those ponies that people must have in mind when loss of type is mentioned as a threat to the breed.  As a newcomer to the breed, I was under the impression that anything bred from registered parents must be considered a Fell.  Now, with a few years of experience under my belt and after observing hundreds of Fell Ponies, I recognize that if care isn’t exercised when breeding, it is indeed possible to produce ponies that do not reflect the breed standard.  Based on my research, it could take as little as ten years of indiscriminate breeding for the breeding population to be irreversibly changed. (12)

Away from the Fells – Part I

Like all the British native pony breeds, the character of Fell Ponies has been shaped by centuries of living in its home climate and terrain.  Its physical stature has been limited by poor quality forage, for instance.  Its surefootedness has been enforced by steep terrain.  Its hardiness has been enforced by weather, terrain, and forage quality. 

NA Pop growth.jpg

The American Shetland Pony is often used as an example of what can happen to a breed when it is taken away from its native ground.  The American Shetland with its flashy action, upright carriage, and fine bone bears little if any resemblance to the tough little ponies of the Shetland Islands.  Is it possible that the Fell Pony will suffer a similar fate if its popularity continues to rise away from its home terrain?

An e-mail string in 2006 asserted that such a fate was indeed a possibility if the North American Fell Pony market were to take off.  The American Quarter Horse was cited as a breed that has mushroomed in less than a century to become the most numerous horse in the world.  This example serves as a well-founded warning to those of us in the North American market to breed consciously and carefully. 

In my first six years of involvement with the Fell Pony, I saw the North American population grow sixfold, from 33 ponies in 2000 to 194 at the end of 2005. (13)  This rate of growth obviously far exceeds the rate of growth in England and stems equally from new ponies being born here and ponies being imported.  If the Fell Pony were to take off in popularity in similar ways to the Quarter Horse (albeit from a smaller base population), it is possible it could be changed from its original form.  It is the responsibility of American breeders to respect the breed standard and breed true-to-type to the best of our ability.

Away From the Fells – Part II

foals in Cumbria.jpg

While the Fell Pony takes its name from the Cumbrian hills, a number of Fell Ponies have also been bred in England but away from Cumbria since the inception of the stud book.  In the past decade we have lost a number of large Cumbrian herds that were owned by long-time breeders whose families declined to continue breeding.  I began to wonder if in fact the proportion of Fell Ponies being bred each year away from Cumbria was growing and possibly becoming a threat to the breed.

My research in the stud books has revealed that the percentage of ponies born outside Cumbria has not seen wide fluctuations in the past forty years, averaging 44%. (14)  Again, these numbers only reflect ponies registered with the Fell Pony Society in England.  In the past decade, when the popularity of the Fell Pony has been growing steadily concurrent with the loss of fell-bred herds, the percentage of the foal population born outside Cumbria is still just 49%.  The chart at right does show a slight downward trend in current times compared to the 1980s and early 1990s. (15) 

Away from the Fells – Part III

Fells on fell.jpg

While the proportion of ponies bred outside Cumbria does not appear to be changing radically, the proportion of Fell Ponies bred off their native fells may be more of a concern.  The population of fell-bred ponies is threatened from at least two directions.  First, as mentioned above, we have lost a number of large herds from the fells that were owned by long-time breeders whose families declined to continue breeding.  Second, some Fell Pony breeders are in danger of losing their grazing rights on the fells.  The fells are common ground, and changing public perceptions and management priorities can impact both the right to graze and the number of animals allowed to graze the common land.   “Breeders of 14 surveyed herds have and use their registered grazing rights, whereas 8 of 23 herds are on sites where breeders have no registered grazing rights.” (16)

One of the problems, according to Murray, with Fell ponies being bred off the Fells, is that they may lose their characteristic hardiness.  Hardiness is one of the most important breed attributes to me, so I will be studying this potential further.  One breeder outside England has asserted that non-fell-bred ponies who are returned to the fells do not do well and may die.  I queried one long-time fell breeder about retaining hardiness off the fells.  The response was that it depends on type and age.  The larger types bred away from the fells probably can’t survive there if returned, nor can older ponies who have been gone most of their lives.

Conclusion

It is obviously good news that the Fell Pony is increasing in popularity and in numbers.  The breed, however, still faces some threats.  Those of us who care about the Fell Pony and its future need to stay informed about the threats to ensure the breed’s ability to thrive well into the future, just as it has survived lean times in the past.

Note about footnotes: raresteeds.com no longer exists, but the data is in possession of the author.

  1. Rare Breeds Survival Trust website:

      http://www.rbst.org.uk/pdf/press_releases/watchlist_pr.pdf as accessed in 2007.

  2. Murray, David Anthony.  The Fell Pony:  grazing characteristics and breed profile – a preliminary assessment.  2005, Earthwatch Institute, p. 48.

  3. Murray, p. 42.

  4. Goodall, Daphne Machin.  Ponies:  Their Origin and Development in Britain, Cranbury, New Jersey, A.S. Barnes & Co., Inc., 1963, p. 60. 

  5. In studying Fell Pony registrations, it is important to recognize that the registration process is a human one and therefore is prone to errors despite our best intentions.  I have made corrections to pedigrees in the stud books where the corrections are obvious, and left inconsistencies intact when I could not resolve them.  I am also aware that the enclosure scheme, in use from 1945-1976, may have incorrectly identified sires of some ponies.  These problems only serve to further highlight the vulnerable gene pool of the breed.

  6. Original research as a byproduct of the Pedigree Information Service of raresteeds.com.  Foals were entered in the database from 2000 back in time.  When I reached 1993, 13% of the colts and 38% of the fillies were already entered because they had progeny (23% overall).  Sires and dams for foals from 2001 to 2003 were already entered, indicating that the breeding population was captured by a ten-year window of foal registrations.

  7. Original research as a byproduct of the Pedigree Information Service of raresteeds.com.  Foals were entered from 2000 back in time.  When I reached 1993, 94% of the parents of the 1993 foal crop were already entered, indicating that the breeding population was already substantially represented in the database.

  8. Original research as a byproduct of the Pedigree Information Service of raresteeds.com.  Breeding animals by year were determined from the mean kinship reports.  Unique animals were then identified for the decades shown in the chart.  Unknown sires and dams were assumed to be unique animals but may have been repeats.  Numbers do not include ancestors of latterly accepted inspection scheme mares, though they may be included by coincidence.

  9. Millard, Sue.  Hoofprints in Eden, Hayloft Publishing, Kirkby-Stephen, Cumbria, England, 2005, p. 222.

  10. Millard, p. 115.

  11. Richardson, Clive, The Fell Pony.  J.A. Allen, Allen Guides to Horse and Pony Breeds, 2000, p. 45.

  12.   See footnote 6 above.

  13. North American Fell Pony roster from raresteeds.com as available in 2006, now available from the author.

  14.   “born in Cumbria” is determined by the address of the breeder in the stud book showing Cumbria as the county.

  15.   Original research as a byproduct of the Pedigree Information Service of raresteeds.com.  For stud books prior to 1981 where addresses of breeders were not supplied, locations of breeders were determined from later entries where addresses were provided, or breeders were assumed outside Cumbria.

  16. Murray, p. 70.

This essay is modified from a chapter out of my book Fell Ponies: Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Fell Ponies and Inspiration

According to The Fell Pony Society, the Fell Pony is “the old breed of pony which has roamed the northern fells for years.”  Within the ponies’ home range lies the Lake District with its national park and World Heritage Site.  While the Fell Pony hasn’t been well integrated into the park’s activities or site’s plans in the past, it certainly can be in the future.  I love photographer Emma Campbell’s goal:  “…one day, I’d like the Lake District to become as famous for its fell ponies as its sheep.”  (1)

Fell Pony Hanging Bracket courtesy Eddie McDonough

The Lake District World Heritage site has three themes:  identity, inspiration, and conservation.  It’s fairly easy to see how the Fell Pony fits in the ‘identity’ theme as this theme is about the historic farming and industrial landscapes.  And our ponies likely can be fit in the conservation theme via conservation grazing, if not other ways.  But you may be surprised, as I was, that inspiration is more problematic.  Fell Ponies have certainly provided inspiration over the years to many with artistic and literary skill, but the inspiration in the World Heritage Site plan is defined quite narrowly:  “The beauty of the Lake District inspired artists and writers of the Picturesque and Romantic movements and generated ideas about landscape that have had global influence.” (2)

The Fell Pony isn’t unique in being left out of the inspirational view of the Lake District.  In his book The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks tells a story that is both disturbing and illuminating.  Rebanks recounts being a school boy and hearing a teacher lecture on the Lake District as a place of nature and romantic ideals of beauty.  He found himself confused because he lived in the Lake District, as had generations of his family before him, and what the teacher was describing was totally foreign to the place that he knew firsthand.  “The Lake District in her monologue was the playground of an itinerant band of climbers, poets, walkers, and daydreamers… people whom, unlike our parents, or us, had ‘really done something….’  Sitting in that assembly was the first time I’d encountered this (basically romantic) way of looking at our landscape.  I realized then, with some shock, that the landscape I loved, we loved, where we had belonged for centuries, the place known as ‘the Lake District,’ had a claim to ownership submitted by other people, based on principles I barely understood [at that time.]” (3)

The Picturesque movement was characterized by an interplay between architecture and landscape that resulted in a pretty picture like one might see in a painting.  A medieval ruin in a country setting was considered ‘picturesque,’ for instance.  William Gilpin, in his 1772 guidebook, encouraged tourists to the Lake District to visit particular places to see the sights from particular perspectives that were pleasing.

The Romantic movement was characterized by a love of nature and of history and a sense of the individual and of emotion.  Realism was considered a polar opposite to Romanticism.  The Fell Pony Museum indicates that Fell Ponies were available as mounts for tourists who wanted to see “the Romantic aspect of the countryside” during the period. (4)  Both the Picturesque and Romantic movements were in part a reaction against the Industrial Revolution.

While horses were sometimes the focus of artists and authors in these movements (late 1700s to mid 1800s), the equine subjects were often sporting, racing, or military in nature.  It doesn’t appear that there was any artistic interest in the native ponies of Britain, including the Fell Pony.  Perhaps their close association with industry through their use as pack horses and later as pit ponies made them uninteresting?

Beatrix Potter was not directly a part of the Romantic or Picturesque movements, but she does figure in the World Heritage Site plan.  And of course there is a Fell Pony connection through her.   Her essay “The Lonely Hills” has a short description of wild fell ponies on Troutbeck Tongue.  One reviewer calls the essay “…a ruminative piece… treating the Lake Country's romantic aura.” (5)  So here, at least, we have one tie of the Fell Pony to the Romantic movement’s view of the Lake District!

While Fell Ponies may not have been considered inspiring by the Romantic and Picturesque movements, they have been inspiring for a number of people since then.  In addition to paintings and books and photos and films, I’ve seen jewelry, holiday greens, textiles, and sculpture.  Here are some examples specific to the Lake District (some of which also touch on the identity and conservation themes):

I’m sure I’m forgetting some obvious artists and authors of the past who were inspired by the Fell Pony and its presence in the Lake District.  I look forward to being told about them so I can add them to this list.  In August 2018, numerous painters and photographers and authors who have taken inspiration from Fell Ponies exhibited their works at the Heritage of the Fells event in Shap.  While I was unable to attend, I was thrilled when a colleague sent me a poem they wrote about their ponies for the event. Heritage of the Fells was supported by Friends of the Lake District via a ‘Discover Cumbria’ grant and by the Fell Pony Society with a grant and merchandise.

The Lake District World Heritage Site plan is hundreds of pages long, and I admit I haven’t read it thoroughly yet.  I hope when I do I discover more ways that the Fell Pony fits within the site’s inspiration theme.  In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the many Fell-Pony-inspired works of art and literature that come my way.

  1. Campbell, Emma, as quoted in Borrell, Robert, “Fell Ponies in the Lake District,” Lancashire Life, 12 April 2018 as found at https://www.lancashirelife.co.uk/out-about/fell-ponies-in-te-lake-district-1-5466508,  accessed 1/10/19.

  2. http://lakesworldheritage.co.uk/blog/2017/july/euphoria-as-lake-district-becomes-a-world-heritage-site/

  3. Rebanks, James.  The Shepherd’s Life:  A Tale of the Lake District.  Allen Lane/Penguin, 2015, p. xiii

  4. “Tourists’ Mounts,” at http://www.fellponymuseum.org.uk/fells/19clate/19thc2.htm

  5. Thomas, Joyce.  “Beatrix Potter’s Americans:  Selected Letters (review),” at https://muse.jhu.edu/article/248147/summaryhttps://muse.jhu.edu/article/248147/summary, accessed on 1/10/19

First Step of a Fell Pony Mimic of a Dartmoor Pony Document

0505 Lunesdale herd3.jpg

In November of 2018, a document was submitted to the UK House of Commons Agriculture Committee in support of Dartmoor Hill Ponies (click here to read it).  A Fell Pony advocate suggested that Fell Ponies on the fells need something similar.  The Dartmoor document was a response to the Your Dartmoor Action Plan, and specifically an action included therein about “the importance of ponies for conservation grazing.” The Fell Pony unfortunately doesn’t have anything comparable to the Your Dartmoor Action Plan to respond to.  So the first step in preparing a Fell Pony mimic to the Dartmoor Pony document is an over-arching plan to respond to.  I offered to help pull information together to mimic the Dartmoor pony document for the Fell Pony.

The Your Dartmoor Action Plan is the management plan for Dartmoor National Park.  It is reviewed annually and updated as needed.  One of the priorities is, “A policy framework for upland farming that supports sustainable farming practices and National Park purposes.”  Action 6 regarding that priority states, “Seek to ensure that the importance of ponies for conservation grazing is recognised in future management and funding.” 

I propose that to mimic the Dartmoor Pony document, we in the Fell Pony world need a Fells on the Fells Action Plan.  The subtitle might be “working to ensure the future of the Fell Pony on the uplands of its historic range.”  I’m not aware of such a plan existing, and I would be ecstatic to find out I’m wrong. 

The Your Dartmoor Action Plan lays out high level priorities.  Then within each priority is a description of what is trying to be achieved and then actions to achieve those goals.  For each action, the questions how, who, how funded, and when are answered.  Click here to see the Dartmoor plan.

Any action plan, of course, is relatively meaningless without people wanting to implement it.  I was told that if all the information were collected, that it could then be put to use.  So I’m embarking on collecting information into one place.

The Fell Pony breed relies almost entirely upon volunteers for its stewardship.  Bits and pieces of the items that belong in a Fells on the Fells action plan have been mentioned, suggested, and advocated for by people in the Fell Pony community already (to whom I’m grateful.)  Yet I’m not aware of the existence of a publicly available comprehensive plan or a single person who has this goal as their full time job. I hate duplicating effort, so if I’m wrong, please stop me from wasting my time!

It’s so important that this sort of plan and work on it be visible, because as volunteers we don’t have time to waste due to duplicated efforts and disorganized voices.  We need to be coordinated to be efficient and effective, which means if we’re working on this topic, we all need to know what’s going on.  So many of us are on-line these days, that sharing information is easier than ever.  We just have to do it! 

Parenthetically:  My Motivation

Here’s why I care.  I’m an American, and I’m all too aware of the difference between the American Shetland Pony and the traditional Shetland Pony.  What happens to a breed that loses its roots is very clear to me.  (I was fortunate to start my equine life with a Shetland cross pony who still was connected to her working roots in her mind, if not in her body.)  A large share of Fell Pony owners in America have never been to England, much less walked on the fells.  Their eye for the breed is shaped by the ponies they see here and what other people here say is correct for the breed.  It seems entirely within the realm of possibility that several decades down the line, if the Fell Pony breed is no longer rooted in the fells, we could have a similar problem as Shetlands do in America. 

So many things point to the importance of this moment in time as being crucial to the future of our breed.  There are many in Cumbria who believe there is no future for the Fell Pony on the uplands.  They may be right.  But there are others who believe that until there are no longer Fell Ponies on the fell, there is hope.  An action plan relies on that second group of people who believe our breed has a future, and, hopefully, are willing to work together in that direction. 

I have begun the creation of a Fells on the Fells Action Plan by creating a preamble and outline.  I then intend, as time and information allows, to fill in the outline.  It will be available on-line so that anyone may use it in support of our breed.  If you’d like to see the outline, click here.    If you have information you think should be in the action plan, please contact me!

A Fells on the Fells Action Plan - DRAFT

0505 Lunesdale herd3.jpg

Introduction

A document prepared on behalf of a British pony breed was posted on a Fell Pony Facebook page in November 2018.  The suggestion was made that we need to create something similar for the Fell Pony.  (to read more about the other breed’s document, click here.)  In order to mimic the the other breed’s document, we need a higher level plan on which to base it.  I’m not aware of such a plan existing, and I would be ecstatic to find out I’m wrong.  In the meantime, I’m laying out here an outline of what I think needs to be in that plan so that mimicking the other breed’s document is possible.

Preamble

Any plan like this, though, is relatively meaningless without people wanting to implement it.  The Fell Pony breed relies almost entirely upon volunteers for its stewardship.  Bits and pieces of the items in this draft plan have been mentioned, suggested, and advocated for by people in the Fell Pony community already (to whom I’m grateful).  Yet I’m not aware of a publicly available comprehensive plan that has support, as evidenced by people working on it and, most importantly, that has progress on the plan being recorded publicly.  I sincerely hope I’m wrong, and someone can correct my misunderstanding. 

So many things point to the importance of this moment in time as being crucial to the future of our breed (and these are just the things I see from across the pond).  There is increasing scrutiny of stewardship schemes.  In 2017, the Lake District National Park was granted World Heritage Site status based on characteristics favorable to keeping Fell Ponies on the fells.  Brexit will undoubtedly influence many things impacting on Fell Ponies.  There is increasing interest in using ponies for conservation grazing.  The breed generally is increasing its visibility throughout its native country thanks to the work of many in many different spheres.  And in my opinion, that the Potters and the Greenholme herd are going through the legal difficulties that they are is a public relations disaster for our breed community that needs to be faced up to.

There are many in Cumbria who believe the future of the Fell Pony on the fell is doomed.  They may be right.  But there are others who believe that until there are no longer Fell Ponies on the fell, there is hope.  This draft plan relies on that second group of people who believe our breed has a future, and, hopefully, are willing to work together in that direction.

The Fells on the Fells Action Plan has two main parts:  1) Priorities and Actions, and 2) Supporting information. 

Part 1: Fells on the Fells Action Plan:  Priorities – with a start on actions

Subtitle:  working to ensure the future of the Fell Pony on the uplands of its historic range

  • · Celebrate and support both long-time and new upland stewards of Fell Ponies.  Note this says stewards, not breeders.  Many stewards only breed occasionally and some may not have registered their stock.  This also says upland, not fell, recognizing that some important stewards of these ponies may not have traditional fell ground.  Note also that support may mean helping stewards work with other common land users in new and different ways towards the long-term goal of a future for the Fell on the fell.

  • Encourage and support people newly interested in stewarding ponies on the uplands.

  • Identify available fell rights that could be utilized for Fell Ponies and make their availability known.

  • Increase the profile of the Fell Pony amongst upland stakeholders

  • Integrate the Fell Pony into the Lake District National Park World Heritage site

  • Maintain a positive, inclusive approach to achieving the goal of keeping Fells on the fells.

Part 2: Supporting Information

1.       Executive Summary

Fell Ponies have roamed the northern hills of England and the border region for centuries.  They have traditionally been bred on the common lands (fells and moorlands) and used for work in the valleys and hills.  In modern times, they have been used in nearly every imaginable equestrian pursuit.  Fell Ponies today are a rare breed and therefore worthy of both recognition and conservation.  Fell Ponies born and reared on the uplands are becoming less and less common in the breed, with possible adverse consequences on the future of the breed.  The reasons for the declining upland population are many and complex.  The future of Fells on the fells is in part dependent on the quality of stewardship of the ponies on the uplands.

2. Importance of Fell Ponies

3.       Impacts of Agri-environment Schemes to-date 

4.       Not sustained by market

5.       Semi-wild and Native Breed at Risk

6.       Central to Lake District/Eden Valley/Northern Pennines History and Culture

7.       Conservation Grazing

8.       Value to Tourism

9.       List of Links/Appendices

Now that an outline for a Fells on the Fells Action Plan exists, it’s possible to start filling in the sections with information so that our breed’s many enthusiasts can do the important work of breed conservation.