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 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