The latest issue of The Livestock Conservancy’s newsletter landed on my desk and immediately caught my attention. The cover article explained changes to the organization’s Conservation Priority List for 2018. I of course scanned it for the equine section and was surprised to read that the Fell Pony had been moved from Watch to Critical “based on global population numbers of less than 2,000.” (1) This reasoning didn’t pass my common sense test, so I decided to learn more.
I felt fortunate when the organization’s executive director, Alison Martin, answered the phone when I called. I explained that I felt there were more than 2000 Fell Ponies in the world, so I was curious about her organization’s reasoning. The answer seems to be that The Livestock Conservancy used numbers from its British counterpart, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, extrapolating from annual registrations of foals. It appears from our conversation that either RBST had preliminary annual registration numbers that were far below the final count for 2017 or they were tracking hillbred foal registrations. Certainly the latter is cause for concern based on my own research and anecdotal comments from UK breed enthusiasts. RBST lists the Fell Pony as Vulnerable, the third tier in their list, while the Livestock Conservancy has just moved the breed to their first tier. In my opinion, the US organization shouldn’t be this out-of-step with the breed’s home conservation organization.
Since I had her ear, I asked Alison whether her organization would consider tracking hillbred Fell Ponies separately from the breed as a whole, just as the organization does with Traditional Morgans. She reminded me that in the case of Morgans, an open stud book led to crossing with other breeds so there is a genetic distinction identifiable by DNA testing between Traditional Morgans and others equines in the breed.
I then led the conversation into losing traits from a landscape-adapted breed like the Fell when the ponies are removed from their home terrain. She used a rare chicken breed as an example saying that the traits are still there in the DNA, so, for instance, returning non hillbred ponies to the fell should be theoretically possible. I said that for welfare reasons this was rarely done, and she pointed out that it could be done with good management; it’s done with wildlife species regularly. I appreciated this perspective. She went on to say it would make a great graduate research project to study ‘refelling’ ponies.
As Alison emphasized, being back on the Critical portion of the conservation list isn’t a good thing. I agreed. Generally being there is an indication that there aren’t enough breed stewards. That isn’t necessarily the case with the Fell Pony, but we are lacking hill breeders, people who steward ponies on their native fells. Alison requested that I send my current research on hillbred ponies to her. It will be in my June newsletter, so if you want to receive it and aren’t subscribed, click here!
- Couch, C.R., et al. “Changes in the Conservation Priority List for 2018,” The Livestock Conservancy News, Spring 2018, Volume 35, issue 2, p. 1.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018
More information about the Fell Pony breed 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.