The Evolution of Fell Ponies and the Lake District

In 2017 when the Lake District was awarded World Heritage Site status, Lake District National Park Chief Executive Richard Leafe said, “The Lake District is an evolving landscape that has changed over time and will continue to do so.”  (1)  In the Fell Pony world we know of this evolution because of its impact on our ponies.  For more of the human history of the Lake District than not, the local native ponies provided the ‘horsepower’ for the region’s economy.  Uses ranged from plowing and pulling sledges to shepherding and hunting wolves.  When used for pack work, their loads of local goods included fleece, fish, metal ore, and more.  (2)  It is unlikely that any facet of the Lake District’s economy or history were untouched by the Fell Pony and its ancestors.

Of course, like most working equine breeds, the Fell Pony’s work changed with the advent of the internal combustion engine (as well as the construction of railroads, roads, and canals).  Since then, the Fell Pony has more often been put to use in recreational riding and driving.  Stables for pleasure riding in the Lake District have existed at various places through the decades, and occasionally more adventurous outings have been possible when small enterprises have offered Fell Ponies re-enacting their historic role as pack ponies on Lakeland trails. 

 The author and two Fell Ponies at Maiden Castle on Burnmoor in the Lake District in 2015.

The author and two Fell Ponies at Maiden Castle on Burnmoor in the Lake District in 2015.

I learned of the evolving landscape of the Lake District when I had the great good fortune to walk over Burnmoor in the Lake District.  One of the first milestones of the trip was Maiden Castle above Wasdale Head.  The presence of Maiden Castle in what today is an uninhabited landscape seems odd.  One theory says it was a residence during the Bronze Age.  Its location up on the fell where not a soul lives today was due to the fact that living down in the wooded valleys was dangerous for humans because of large predators including wolves.  It was safer to live up on the relatively barren landscape where predators and other dangers could be more easily seen at a distance.  Today of course the uplands are considered uninhabitable by humans because of that barrenness and remoteness, and instead the valleys are preferred since the woods have been cleared, and the landscape has been domesticated for life. 

I did that walk over Burnmoor with two Fell Ponies, so I got to experience the evolution of both the Lake District and the Fell Pony first hand.  The route was once a corpse road over which pack ponies carried bodies for burial in Eskdale because there wasn’t a proper burial place in Wasdale.  When I first had the idea to traverse an historic pack horse route in the Lake District with Fell Ponies, I had no idea how hard it would be to find a route open to equines in modern times.  I’m thankful that the Lake District landscape will continue to evolve so that perhaps more historic packhorse routes will again be available as bridleways in the future.

Richard Leafe’s comment about the evolving landscape of the Lake District is both a statement of fact and a statement of political necessity.  Naysayers about the World Heritage designation point to environmental health issues that they feel were unaddressed in the bid for World Heritage site designation.  Leafe went on to say, “Improving landscape biodiversity and looking after our cultural heritage underpin the [Lake District National Park] Partnership’s management plan which sets out how, together, we will look after the National Park as a World Heritage Site for everyone to enjoy.” (3) 

The Fell Pony is already playing a role in improving landscape biodiversity as a conservation grazer.  (4)  And the Fell Pony clearly is part of the Lake District’s cultural heritage through its many roles as horsepower and recreation in the region.  While the Fell Pony community may not have been involved in the creation of the management plan, it seems likely that the plan, too, can evolve so that together we can ensure that the Fell Pony’s part in the Lake District’s story is not forgotten.

  1. Leake, Richard.  As quoted in “Euphoria as Lake District Becomes a World Heritage Site,” 09 July 2017 blog post at lakesworldheritage.org.uk, as accessed 20 November 2018

  2. “Early History,” on “About Fell Ponies” page at www.fellponysociety.org.uk as accessed 20 November 2018.

  3. Same as #1.

  4. See, for instance, Morrissey, Jenifer, “Fells on the fells and Wild Horses on the Range,” Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm, April, 2015.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

The author’s exploration of matters relating to the Fell Pony can be found in her book Fell Ponies: Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.