Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The New Forest

The New Forest is one of my all-time favourite places in the UK. Of course, it might well be the presence of about a gerjillion ponies that has me jumping for joy each time I visit – Ok, it is…it is the ponies. I'm aware that I'm stretching the realms of the remit of this blog – New Forest ponies aren’t officially pets – but…can we just overlook the semi-feral-ness of them so I can post some of the pictures I've just rediscovered?  

Pure bred New Forest Ponies come in a range of colours, mainly chestnut, bay and grey - but they can also be roan and black. Piebald, skewbald and blue eyed cream are not permitted. 

One of my plans for this year is to work on a study of the New Forest Pony. I hope to visit every season and photograph them in all weathers and all times of day just for the sheer heck of it. This morning I started on the planning, which meant research - and, because you know I love a bit of history, I had to include it here.

The pictures in this post are all from my trip to the New Forest last August for my birthday. I had planned a whole day of photography but it rained so hard that day the range of pictures didn't happen. We did get some sunny moments though, where we mostly ate too much and lounged about among the trees. It was actually bliss – rainy wet bliss!

The New Forest 

Of course, throughout history horses and ponies have roamed wild around Europe, and there is evidence of wild equines in the New Forest area since the end of the Ice Age.

The New Forest isn't actually new or a forest. The land is ancient heath, and the term ‘forest’ was first used in the English language to describe ‘land for hunting’. Land of course often comes with trees, and so the word evolved, and we all now use it to describe land that is covered in trees.

The New Forest was in fact created by William the Conqueror in 1079 as his own Royal Hunting Ground. During its development, the people of the area (commoners) were allowed to turn their livestock out to graze. Don’t be fooled into thinking that William was a kind man; he was actually a bit of a shitbag who the English despised. But this isn't really about William (although it is largely thanks to him we've got this beautiful area to coo about).

Often used as pit ponies in the past, the New Forest Pony is a sturdy worker. Nowadays, due to their calm nature they make great ponies for children.

The New Forest pony is a recognised native breed of the British Isles and is now listed as a Minority Breed with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. There are about 4500 of them grazing the Forest. They’re known for their hardiness and versatility, along with intelligence and gentle nature.

New Forest ponies aren't wild, they are all owned by commoners who have rights of common pasture – however they are predominantly left out to graze in the forest, and on the commons year round and are affectionately known as the ‘Architects of the Forest’ – their existence being essential to the ecological balance of the forest and vice versa.

Whilst the New Forest Ponies are often very tolerant of humans, they should not be fed or touched at all by visitors - not only can feeding cause digestive problems and illness, it also encourages them to move towards roads and villages which puts them in danger of being hit by cars.

All ponies must be branded with their owners mark and are overseen by five Agisters who charge a nominal fee each year to check their health and worm them. Each pony then has their tail marked with their relative Agister’s unique cut, to show fees have been paid.

The ponies are mostly females - mares, with of course their foals, and a few geldings to add to the mix. Stallions aren't permitted to roam free, but are run out during the early Summer months to do their thing; ensuring foals are born when there is enough food for them to thrive.

I sheltered with this group of four during a heavy rainfall, we were all under this tree, and they just accepted me as one of them. Absolutely lovely - a forever memory.

Later in the year the ponies are subject to ‘Autumn Drifts’, where the herds are “thinned out” removing mainly colts and some fillies (which are sold on), and those in poor health.

During the mid-1800s the quality of New Forest Pony stock was on the decline. Better quality stock was being sold on, leaving those who weren't necessarily the healthiest of specimens to continue breeding. Queen Victoria herself loaned an Arab stallion to improve the breed, but still things didn't go well.

A pregnant mare. Whilst taking this photograph I could see the outline of her baby move around inside her tummy. Wonderful experience to be accepted by her and she posed for many shots!

In 1891 the Society for Improvement of the New Forest Pony was created and encouraged the use of good quality stallions to run the forest – numbers began to grow. By 1905 the New Forest Pony Stud Book was set up - a concerted effort was made to improve bloodlines further, and by 1930 all stallions sent out for shenanigans were pure New Forest Ponies.

All went well until World War II.

The Forest was instrumental to British Operations during the War. Much of the area was taken over by allied forces for training and exercise, and ponies were requested to be removed for safety reasons. Due to rationing, areas of the forest were ploughed to produce food and 400,000 tons of timber was felled. It wasn't a good time for the Architects of the Forest. Numbers dropped again.

Nowadays stock numbers aren’t at their highest – as we remain in economic difficulty, the knock on effect to livelihoods of commoners using the forest has grown; less sales equal less ponies being produced. However, a programme initiated by Verderers (officers of the forest) to concentrate on quality and not quantity of ponies, ensures that efforts are continuously made to improve bloodlines, helping the New Forest remain one of the most beautiful and important, both scientifically and ecologically, areas of Great Britain.

Camera shy - not everyone likes having their pictures taken

To find out more about the New Forest Pony and their breed specifics, visit the New Forest Pony Breeding & Cattle Society website.

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  1. What a beautiful post with gorgeous pictures! They are absolutely magical and the colors just stunning. I've always loved horses..maybe in the future we'll have room to add one to our family. :-)

  2. Oh wow!! Your photos are so pretty! This sounds like such a fun project! The story about these ponies is fascinating! I can't wait to read more!

  3. Those photos are gorgeous! I loved reading about their history!

  4. The ponies are majestic in their surroundings. After visiting the New Forest, they allow us humans into their domicile and I, for one, found that humbling. An interesting story with truly beautiful photographs!

  5. This is absolutely fascinating. Are the ponies friendly? Like are you able to pet them or is that discouraged as well?

    1. The ponies shouldn't be touched - as it makes them more reliant on people and could pull them closer to roads. It's a shame as my instinct is to go and give them all an ear scritch :)


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