And Now For Something Completely Different

Sleddale Rose Beauty at Willowtrail Farm in 2010

Sleddale Rose Beauty at Willowtrail Farm in 2010

I do not enjoy movies, so I do not watch them very often.  To take time away from my ponies or my creative writing, there has to be a pretty compelling reason.  When a writing colleague told me about a movie that has a connection to my first Fell Pony, though, the film made it to my to-watch list and eventually arrived in DVD form.

Looking upstream under Wet Sleddale packhorse bridge

Looking upstream under Wet Sleddale packhorse bridge

My colleague warned me that Withnail and I was a dark comedy, so I knew I had to watch it with an open mind.  My primary motivation was to see how Sleddale Hall, on the farm in Cumbria where Sleddale Rose Beauty was born, had been used for one of the film’s locations.  As my colleague had expected, the humor wasn’t much to my liking, but I very much enjoyed seeing places that I recognized.

One scene was filmed in a creek that went under the arch of a stone bridge.  After reviewing my photographs from my trip there in 2015, it sure looks like it was filmed upstream and under Wet Sleddale Bridge, a place I had also ventured.  Other scenes in the movie were filmed on stone-wall-lined roads that also looked familiar.

Looking up to Sleddale Hall

Looking up to Sleddale Hall

Another scene was set in a telephone booth, supposedly in Penrith but actually in Bampton according to my colleague.  That brought back a flood of memories.  I recognized a street scene in Bampton and then I remembered how inept I felt in 2006 trying to use a pay phone in Penrith.  I’m surprised I actually got the call to go through to the person I intended!  Since then we’ve learned how to take our own cell phone to Cumbria!

The movie’s outdoor scenes of Sleddale Hall were primarily close up or looking from there down to the reservoir.  My views when I visited in 2015 were from the far side of the reservoir looking up toward the hall.  Beauty’s breeder’s family, the Harrisons, lived in Sleddale Hall at one time.

Some of the movie’s scenes were of torrential downpours.  Those certainly felt authentic to me.  In 2006 just such a storm kept me holed up in my bed and breakfast in Shap instead of getting out for an early morning walk at Wet Sleddale before heading to the airport to return to Colorado.  Thankfully the weather was very nice when I finally made it there nine years later.

For me, sitting down and watching a movie was something completely different, especially a dark comedy like Withnail and I.  And while it isn’t a movie I would recommend, I’m so grateful to Margaret Dickinson for telling me about it and letting me relive my connections to the film’s Cumbrian locations and to remember with great fondness my first Fell Pony Sleddale Rose Beauty.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

More stories like this one can be found in my book What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Welcome Willowtrail Henry!

Willowtrail Henry at 31 hours

Willowtrail Henry at 31 hours

I didn’t realize how much tension I was holding, awaiting the birth of my first foal this year.  All that tension vanished, though, when Willowtrail Henry entered the world.  I was blessed to be able to act as midwife for his birth, and as always it was amazing to watch how quickly he began getting to his feet.  His abundant energy made for a long wait before he got serious about nursing, though!

The inspiration for Henry’s name comes from three places.  His father’s grandsire was Lunesdale Henry, an esteemed stallion from that longtime stud, whom I was fortunate to spend time with in 2006.  The breeder of my Henry’s mother’s mother was Henry Harrison of the no-longer Sleddale stud.  I was blessed to talk to Mr. Harrison and receive historic photos of his ponies in 2011.  Finally, the picture on the May 2019 page of the Fell Pony Society calendar is of Waverhead Henry with the late Miss Mary Longsdon, MBE.  I had great respect for Mary’s work as chairman of the Fell Pony Society and for the many things she did on either side of that part of her service to our breed.  I first spoke with Mary in 2007 and was thrilled to meet her in 2015 when I visited England.

Henry is out of Willowtrail Wild Rose, the daughter of my first Fell Pony Sleddale Rose Beauty.  I am sentimental about this line for many reasons, and I am very interested in continuing it.  Now begins the long wait to get a filly like Henry!  While my pH-of-the-milk foaling predictor was off by a few days, Rose had an incredible amount of wax an hour before Henry was born.  Long time Cumbrian Fell Pony breeder Christine Robinson called it ‘candles’ and I can see why!  I appreciate that Rose chose to foal at noon and when I was on hand to help.

Rose waxing

Henry is my first foal by Kinniside Asi.  While I did as much research as I could in choosing Asi as a stallion, there remained uncertainty about my choice until Henry hit the ground.  No longer!  I have told Papa he did good several times!  Asi’s mother threw three colts in a row.  I sure hope Asi and Rose don’t have that sort of pattern; it will be hard to wait that long to get a filly I can keep!  I can certainly see some of Lunesdale Henry in Asi’s face; maybe someday I’ll see it in my Henry’s too.

The late Lunesdale Henry

The late Lunesdale Henry

Henry is proving to be one of the friendliest foals I’ve ever had.  And pictures are becoming harder to take as his eyesight improves; he comes to see me as soon as I get anywhere close!  What a blessing it is to share life with these ponies!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

Stories about other ponies born at Willowtrail Farm can be found in my book What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here and on the book cover.

A Conversation Between A Mare and A Stallion

Asi and Madie

Because I breed almost exclusively by live cover, I do a lot of teasing, watching for how the mare and stallion communicate with each other.  Is the mare interested in the stallion’s flirtations?  Does the stallion sense the mare will be receptive to his advances?  Or is the opposite the case?  I realize that I’ve considered teasing to have two possible messages – interest and no interest - but a mare recently showed me there could be a third.

As I watched this mare over the course of several weeks of teasing, she showed me the two messages I was expecting.   At first she was uninterested in the stallion.  If I were to put words to her communication, they would be, “Don’t even dare coming any closer to me, or I’ll turn and kick your brains out!”  Then she came into heat, and if I were to put words to her behavior, they would be, “Come here pretty boy and let’s see what we can do together.”  The third message came after her heat cycle had ended.  I realized when she expressed disinterest in the stallion, it had a different character.  If I had to put words to her message, they would be, “Thank you for our interactions.  I’m no longer interested, but I appreciate your cooperation.”  The mare’s disinterest was less intense, and she tolerated the stallion’s company seemingly because she appreciates being in foal. 

Not all mares enjoy a stallion’s company after they’re bred.  I suspect that’s why I’ve never previously realized my inaccurately narrow view of the conversations between mares and stallions during teasing.  Now though, I realize that one other mare had a similar threesome of teasing communications.  She too enjoyed a stallion’s company while she was in foal.

I was speaking to an acquaintance the other night and expressing my envy at his multiple generations of animal husbandry experience.  Because I’ve been doing this for just twenty years, his 60 plus seems eons longer.  I was surprised by his response.  He said even though he has more years of experience than I do, nothing’s really ever the same, and he’s always learning how to steward his animals better.  Good to know!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

More thoughts about breeding Fell Ponies can be found in my book Fell Ponies: Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Breeding for the Best

180726 ponies at pasture.jpg

It’s foaling season, so I have pony breeding on my brain anyway.  Then two conversations within the space of a week with long-time Cumbrian Fell Pony breeders touched on the same topic from different perspectives.  I always try to pay attention to those types of coincidences.

The topic was about how to breed for the best Fell Pony possible.  And in both cases the breeders presented evidence against a strategy that otherwise seems quite logical:  if you have a really good pony, and you breed it to a really good pony, then surely you’ll end up with a really good foal.  Yet both these breeders with a lifetime of experience said otherwise.  While it might make sense in theory, they said, it rarely proves out in practice.

From experience, they said that often the best won’t reproduce themselves.  It may be because they are already so good that anything they produce will be a come-down.  Or it may be that there are faults hidden behind them that manifest in the next generation.  Or it may be because they are sterile and just won’t reproduce at all. 

And also from experience, they said that matching a mare to a stallion is about a lot more than matching a good animal to a good animal.  It needs to be more about matching strengths in one to areas needing improvement in the other.  It needs to be about recognizing that the perfect pony, one without need of improvement, has yet to be born.

I have heard these ideas before, but I never really believed them.  Breeding the best to the best just seems so logical.  This time hearing them, though, I am in a different place.  I am watching the topic play out before my eyes in my own herd.  I have one mare line that I’ve always considered to be ‘the best.’  But it is proving tricky to breed the next generation.  And at the same time, I have a mare line that isn’t quite as spectacular to look at when only the matriarch is considered, but when she’s surrounded by her offspring, it’s hard to argue that there could be much better to look at.  These experiences and these conversations are making me look at my herd with new eyes.  That’s a good thing!

In both my conversations with these veteran breeders, we agreed that breeding is more art than science, more craft than logic.  It is that creative part that keeps breeding interesting and what adds richness to conversations with other breeders.  I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to talk to them.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

More thoughts about breeding can be found in my book Fell Ponies: Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

So Much to Look Forward To

Willowtrail Mountain Honey

I admit to having a chronic case of the human condition known as ‘a search for meaning.;  I find life to be incredibly rich and rewarding due to this condition, but when something unexpected happens, it tends to set me back on my heels until I can discern a reason for the event.  When my husband was killed in an accident, it threw everything in my life into question. At the time, I had more Fell Pony foals due than ever before. It didn’t take long, though, for the meaning of this to become quite clear.

Of course, had I known I would be alone come foaling season, with an increased work load and an estate to settle and a business to close, I wouldn’t have bred as many mares.  That I did breed them and that I am now alone says to me that stewarding these ponies is something I’m meant to continue doing.  And that it will likely be an important part of my new life.

Willowtrail Wild Rose

From this perspective, then, there is so much to look forward to!  These foals will include the first by my new stallion as well as the last by my previous stallion, and I am anxious to compare the two.  There will be a foal from a line that I’m particularly sentimental about, and I’m hopeful it will be something I can be proud of.  I’m hoping for a foal from a line that is charismatic and has movement to die for.  And there will be two foals from a line that right now is eye candy for me.  I’m very much looking forward to more eye candy!  And I’m not just looking forward to this year’s foals but also to what they will tell me about my breeding program.  I’m always striving to produce better Fell Ponies with each generation, so I’m anxious to see what this foal crop will tell me about my progressive breeding goals.

So while my ‘search for meaning’ condition has been quite flared up of late, at least where my ponies are concerned, there is less uncertainty.  And as foaling season nears, I have much to look forward to!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

There are more stories like this one in my book What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Chestnuts and Fell Ponies

A chestnut on a Fell Pony

A chestnut on a Fell Pony

In the Fell Pony breed, when we hear the word ‘chestnut,’ most of us think of the vestigial toe above the inside of the knee (and sometimes hock).  However, a recent change to the Fell Pony Breed Description brought another chestnut to mind: the color.  Previously, chestnut-colored Fell Ponies were not allowed to be registered; now if they are born to registered parents, they are eligible for registration in Section X of the stud book.

In addition to chestnut, treatment of the skewbald and piebald colors also changed similarly.  Chestnut made sense to me because it is recessive to black, so two black Fell Ponies who carry the recessive gene, when mated, have a chance of throwing a chestnut foal.  I had heard, rarely, of chestnut foals being thrown before, but only recently through the wonders of the internet was I introduced to a breeder who has one.  The picture here by Michaela di Nanni of her black mare with its chestnut foal is quite a sight!  And the picture of the same chestnut pony full grown certainly looks like a Fell Pony except for the color.

A chestnut Fell Pony as a foal and an adult courtesy Michaela di Nanni

A chestnut Fell Pony as a foal and an adult courtesy Michaela di Nanni

I know what it’s like to be completely surprised by the color of a foal.  When I first decided to cross my silver dapple Shetland/Welsh mare on my Fell stallion, I looked up in the book Equine Color Genetics what colors I should expect.  There is a table in an appendix that says that a black bred to a silver dapple will ‘always’ produce a silver dapple.  But the first foal from this cross wasn’t a silver dapple at all; it was a black!  “Other colors are expected to occur frequently in most breeds if certain fairly common recessives are present in the parents.” (1)  Obvious my silver dapple mare had a black recessive!  The table indicates that black is a common color resulting from this cross.  The two subsequent foals from that mare, to a different Fell stallion, were silver dapples.  Chestnuts are in the ‘occasional’ column of the table for a black x black mating so would be even less likely to result in Fell Ponies than black was in my Shetland/Welsh/Fell.

When I read about the change in the color section of the Fell Pony Breed Description, I was confused.  I understood why chestnut should be an allowed color now, but I was puzzled why skewbald and piebald were included.  I know ponies with those colors can be found way back in the stud books, but my understanding of color genetics indicates that those colors shouldn’t ever show up in our breed today because they’ve been bred out.  On the other hand, I do know that Fells and Gypsy horses/coloured cobs are often interbred, so it wouldn’t surprise me if a piebald or skewbald pony was presented as a Fell at some point.

In the language of color genetics, piebald and skewbald are types of the tobiano pattern.  “Piebald refers to any black and white horse….  Skewbald refers to white spotting on any color other than black.”  Equine Color Genetics goes on to say, “The tobiano pattern is caused by the tobiano allele which is dominant to its absence.…  it is very rare for the tobiano allele to be present and not betray its presence in the coat.” (2)   So unlike the chestnut color that can stay hidden for generations in our breed, piebald and skewbald would likely be visible immediately.  I was very pleased to hear from the Fell Pony Society secretary that any pony of these colors (including chestnut) would likely be asked to have confirmed parentage via DNA testing. 

A black foal was a surprise from a silver dapple mare crossed on a black Fell Pony stallion

A black foal was a surprise from a silver dapple mare crossed on a black Fell Pony stallion

Often, breeders are interested in focusing on particular colors.  I remember hearing one family say they hoped to revive the roan color in the Fell Pony which could be found a few generations behind my first Fell Pony mare.  Chestnut could inspire a similar goal, but with Section X registration only, there are likely too many obstacles to overcome. For me, the Fell Pony is defined by type, not color, so I am likely in the minority in thinking a chestnut or roan pony could be a good Fell! 

The current change to our Breed Description was forced on the Fell Pony Society; FPS is required to register any foal born from two registered parents.  And since chestnut can result from crossing two black ponies, chestnut should be an allowed color for registration.  I’m pleased that our Breed Description is closer to reflecting the current understanding of color genetics.

  1. Sponenberg, D. Phillip.  Equine Color Genetics, Second Edition.  Ames, Iowa:  Iowa State University Press, Blackwell Publishing, 2003, p. 183.

  2. Sponenberg, p. 74, 76.

 With thanks to Michaela di Nanni, Sue Millard, and Fell Pony Society Secretary Katherine Wilkinson.

 © Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

More articles like this one can be found in my book Fell Ponies: Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

The Fell Pony is Fortunate

One of the first foals I saw a picture of this spring was conceived by artificial insemination (AI).  An article from The Livestock Conservancy about assistive reproductive technologies including AI said that since 2008, rare equine breeds have seen a 50% decline in registrations of new animals. (1)  The Fell Pony is fortunate compared to its rare brethren.  We’ve only gone below 50% once during those years, and in 2018 were at 68.3% of 2008 levels.  After year over year declines since 2008, we’ve been gaining since 2016.

Willowtrail fillies conceived by AI

As registrations of rare equine breeds drop, there’s a fear of losing blood lines, hence the article about assistive reproductive technologies to assist in preserving lines that might otherwise be lost.  I learned about some of them at Colorado State University several years ago when we took a seminar about them, but there have been many advances since then.  The technologies discussed in the article include:

  • Fresh semen collection for use in artificial insemination.  This is allowed in the Fell Pony breed.

  • Semen collection for freezing, which can also occur in the event of injury or death of a stallion by harvesting the testes and extracting the sperm.  Frozen semen is allowed to be used in the Fell Pony breed.

  • Embryo flushing when a mare can conceive but not carry to term.  The embryo is transferred to a recipient mare for gestation.  This has been done in the Fell Pony but the resulting foal was not eligible for registration.

  • Oocyte harvesting when a mare cannot conceive or has died recently.  The embryo is fertilized in a lab using a technique called intracytoplasmic sperm injection and then transferred to a recipient mare.  Foals produced using this method are not eligible for registration in the Fell Pony breed.

  • Cloning.  This has successfully been done in equines but is not allowed in Fell Ponies.

The Livestock Conservancy article went on to discuss the role of tissue banks in breed conservation.  Some Fell Pony semen is being stored in a tissue bank.  Optimally, says the Conservancy, the stored tissues will be representative of all blood lines and with representation of more mares than stallions.  We have a ways to go in our breed toward that goal.

Of course if the Fell Pony is above 50% in registrations then other breeds are sadly much worse off.  We are fortunate to have AI available for use, with many stallions in North America permitted for AI by the Fell Pony Society.  I’ve used AI to progress my own breeding program and was happy with the results.  Hopefully our breed’s situation will continue to improve so that more aggressive assistive reproductive technologies won’t be needed.

1)      Couch, Charlene, PhD and Katrin Hinrichs, DVM PhD. “Applying Assisted Reproductive Technologies for Conservation of Valuable Equine Genetics,” The Livestock Conservancy News, Autumn 2018, p. 3.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

More articles like this one about stewarding the Fell Pony can be found in my book Fell Ponies: Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Burn Moor

Linnel Doublet and Don Ewy being passed by hikers on Burn Moor

Burn Moor in Lake District National Park in Cumbria can be traversed via a 5 mile hike between the villages of Wasdale Head and Boot.  It is a route used by mountain bikers and fell walkers.  But it also has two historic pack horse connections.  The first was for trade: moving goods from farm to market and from town to town.  The second was as a corpse road.  Until the early twentieth century, Wasdale Head didn’t have consecrated ground for burials, so bodies had to be transported through Boot to Eskdale to be interred.

Numerous stories exist about this corpse road when pack horses were used to carry coffins.  The stories usually include the route’s hazards of bogs and fog, as well as the loneliness of the route.  And the stories include bolting equines, lost bodies, and ghosts.  Even today, walking across Burn Moor it is easy to imagine the truth of these stories.

To read more about Burn Moor and corpse roads, click here to request the August 2015 edition of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm.

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.



  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,, 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.


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

  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.

150829 Greenholme pony.jpg

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 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