Native ponies have roamed freely in Britain for around four millennia. Even a century ago, many thousands were an integral part of our remotest landscapes, from Exmoor and Dartmoor to the fells of northern England, from the Welsh mountains and coastal plains to the Highlands and islands.
We have often taken for granted the sight of wild ponies hugging hillsides or grazing peacefully on rolling moorland. A chance encounter with a wild herd, the exhilaration of observing a stallion galloping across the open heath each spring and the autumn round-up were once common events, etched indelibly into the memories and hearts of anyone who understood the countryside.
Truly wild herds are not owned, but are left to their own devices. Sadly, most 21st-century Britons have never come across any. Today, equines living in this "state of nature" are nearly impossible to find in Britain, perhaps relegated to very few corners of the remotest Scottish islands and highest Welsh mountains.
With increasing difficulty we can track down ponies that we may think of as wild, but which are, in fact, owned and managed. These ponies are not fully controlled by their owners and are rarely handled. They run in natural herds, grazing extensively on our mountains, moorlands and marshes, landscapes less altered by man.
Many wild-pony owners are farmers and dedicated breeders who usually belong to one of Britain's nine native breed societies – Exmoor, Dartmoor, New Forest, Welsh Pony and Cob, Dales, Fell, Highland, Shetland and Connemara – set up to protect our pony heritage. These ponies have pedigrees and their ancestors can be accurately traced using records maintained by societies over more than a century. Some independent farmers breed wild herds that might resemble one or other recognised breed but have no pedigree.
Today's recognised native breeds have descended from populations that have existed since Celtic times, each becoming geographically isolated as human settlement divided land. They are products of this isolation and, in some cases, purposeful crossing with other breeds.
Seemingly forgotten by all but their most ardent admirers, the number and size of wild pedigree herds have declined alarmingly over the last 50 years, and many breeds face imminent extinction. Upland herds, which live beyond 650ft above sea level, are particularly threatened. "The [Cumbrian fell] breed isn't under threat, but the pony in its natural surroundings is," says Tom Capstick, a Cumbrian fell breeder. "If the hill herds collapse, bloodlines could disappear." "In 10 years there will be no ponies running wild on the fells," adds Bill Potter, another Cumbrian farmer-breeder.
A rare breed's number of actively breeding females indicates how threatened it is. For example, the Dales breed, which is classified as "critical" (close to extinction), has around 30 wild breeding mares. Fewer than 150 fell pony foals born in 2006 were from wild mares, and only 760 wild Welsh mountain ponies remain in Wales.
"Ponies are in decline for economic reasons," says Roland Michell, veterinary surgeon of the Welsh Pony and Cob Society. Farmers are increasingly discouraged from breeding them because of a lack of financial incentives. With the notable exception of the Horserace Betting Levy Board, which helps many wild herds to survive, there is often little Government support.
There is no huge demand for wild ponies. The cost of rearing a foal for auction at market often exceeds the sale price. Their saleable value has decreased "to probably 30 per cent of what it used to be in the early 1960s", says Emrys Bowen, a retired Welsh vet. "Who wants to keep them to get nothing for the progeny?"
The increasing cost and complexity of bureaucracy makes matters worse. A recent European requirement for all equines to have passports has encouraged some breeders to reduce herd sizes or to sell up, eradicating breed-lines. The loss or curtailment of breeders' grazing rights, through new regulations on some British commons, exacerbates a serious situation.
Welsh farmer-breeder Roger Davies believes the fact that most breeders are nearing retirement and are not being replaced by younger farmers means the number of hill ponies will continue to decline. Roland Michell cites a " lack of interest" among the younger generation.
For almost 2,000 years, Britain's wild herds were an integral part of our lives. Tamed individuals pulled Saxon ploughs, shepherded Norman flocks, helped drive cattle and served as Britain's pack animals. More recently, they were bred to pull recreational traps, work farms and mines and haul our coal and food.
By the early 20th century, railways and motorised transport had precipitated a serious reduction in wild pony numbers. Although they remain excellent riding and driving stock, few are now needed in their traditional roles.
Why should we care? Because wild indigenous ponies represent precious cultural heritage and are a significant tourist attraction. "It is vital for Welsh heritage that ponies continue to run on the hills," says Colin Thomas, secretary of Wales' Pony Improvement Societies.
Many breeders of domesticated native ponies have traditionally replenished their breeding stock from wild breed-lines. The disappearance of its wild herds will therefore jeopardise a breed's chances of survival. Over the last century breeders have selected physical characteristics that they believe define their breed. Unwanted characteristics have been bred out. This dilution escalates with the loss of every genetically unique breedline, further reducing diversity within a breed and threatening its future ability to cope with extreme environments.
Loss of wild herds will have serious consequences for British wildlife, too. Wild native ponies are needed to help manage Britain's landscapes, from mountain to moorland, coastal cliff to forest. They are some of the finest conservationists in the world. They benefit invertebrates, mammals, birds and wild flowers because they graze and browse selectively, creating vegetation mosaics of interspersed shorter and taller vegetation.
Maintaining the link between pedigree ponies and their native environments "is vital if the unique characteristics – thriftiness, hardiness, disease resistance – are to be retained", according to Britain's Rare Breeds Survival Trust. "These have taken thousands of years to acquire but can be lost in the space of two generations."
Each breed may exhibit special characteristics that we could harness to help wildlife flourish. Wild foals learn where to eat from their mothers and how to thrive on meagre winter vegetation. The desirable grazing behaviour of herds removed from their native habitats could be lost for ever.
The need for wild ponies in conservation roles is likely to increase. Recent agricultural policy reform could lead to a significant reduction of sheep and cattle farming. Grazing ponies are already helping to prevent biodiversity loss caused by under-grazing on some nature reserves.
Few pedigree ponies are used in grazing schemes. Their genetic value is often ignored by land managers. Instead, conservation agencies rely largely on unregistered ponies of unknown origin, reducing any need or desire for farmers to maintain wild pedigree herds. The pedigree pony, whose genetic and functional superiority is proven and unrivalled, must be the preferred choice for future biodiversity management programmes.
Although appropriate Government support is essential, the survival of wild herds will also depend upon whether breed societies can market the progeny of their herds for conservation purposes.
If we can ensure the long-term survival of our remaining wild ponies, we offer the greatest chance of successfully protecting our wildlife in the face of rapidly evolving landscapes and a changing British climate.
David Murray is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, an Earthwatch Institute Fellow and a Millennium Fellow
On the hoof: a history of Britain's native breeds
Related to prehistoric horse.
Lived on Exmoor since Celtic times.
Traditionally ridden, jumped, trekked, driven and packed.
Composition influenced by many other breeds.
Originally carried Dartmoor tin.
Later became shepherding pony.
Driving and children's riding animal.
Pedigree stallions from forest graze moorland.
Performs as jumping, polo and endurance mount.
Probably originated from Europe's wild Celtic pony three millennia ago.
Arab blood was introduced in 5th century via Roman stock.
Used in coal mines and to pull carts in early 20th century.
Children's riding and trekking pony.
May have resided on Shetland four millennia ago.
Formerly used as transport pony.
Ridden by crofters from 4th century.
Stallions were used at coal face in 19th century.
Bred today for showing, riding, driving and as family pet.
Probably descended from the wild European pony before 1,500BC.
Roamed hills of northern England since 1st century.
Riding, driving and pack pony, war horse and hunter by 6th century.
Transported iron and lead ore from Roman times until 16th century.
Lake District pack pony from 12th century.
Pulled ploughs, traps and carts.
Was ridden by tourists and helped shepherd flocks.
Recreational riding and trekking pony.
Primitive markings on bodies suggest ancient origin.
Ridden in Scottish highlands 600 years ago.
Was used by crofters to carry deer and grouse since 18th century.
Driving and trekking pony.
Originated from upper dales of Eastern Pennines.
Initially bred as a pack pony for the Pennine lead industry.
Later became farm and shepherding pony.
Was harness, Army pack and Mountain Artillery pony.
In demand as a riding, driving and working (eg logging) animal.
Indigenous to County Galway, in the west of Ireland.
Originated from Celtic pony mixed with Arab and Barb blood.
Carried turf and seaweed fertiliser, and ploughed fields.
Competition jumping pony.Reuse content