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.