New Forest hit by slump in pony sales

Click to follow
JENNY TILLYER looks across to where her ponies are queueing in the mud to be pushed into the auction ring. As the hammer comes down on another disappointing sale, she shakes her head. "Prices are pretty grim," she said. In a decline that threatens a way of life which has existed for more than 900 years, sales of New Forest ponies have slumped, and prices have plummeted.

Whereas four years ago top foals - those with the potential to become show ponies - would fetch up to 300 guineas (under the ancient pricing structure, for every pounds 1 the seller receives, the auctioneer is paid 5p), last week saw them going for just 60 guineas - and poor ones for 30 or less.

The dramatic fall, which is being blamed on the worsening economic situation nationwide, has badly hit the commoners, the name for the select band of residents within the New Forest boundaries who enjoy historic rights to graze.

Affluent parents who would once have thought nothing of buying an animal for their child are becoming far more cautious about extravagant spending, and the purchase of a pony is among the first things to go. Riding schools are also feeling the pinch and the New Forest faces competition from Dartmoor and Welsh ponies. The result: too many ponies in the forest for the market.

The seriousness of the situation became clear on Thursday at the last New Forest pony auction of the year, held at the Beaulieu Road showground.

Mrs Tillyer, whose family have been commoners in the forest for generations, sold one foal for 38 guineas. In 1994 it would have fetched up to 180 guineas. "It has cost me far more to look after this pony than I have made today," she said. "I'm keeping a lot of my ponies on because I don't like getting these ridiculous prices." Like most owners, Mrs Tillyer turns to other work, such as training horses for riding schools, to supplement her income.

"The commoners are losing serious money and it's a worry because the New Forest needs the commoners to survive," said Gill Lowth, chairman of the New Forest Pony Breeders and Cattle Society, which organises the sales. "It would become an impenetrable jungle without them."

Similar worries have been voiced by the Verderers, effectively the governing body in the forest. "There is a limit to how long the commoners can subsidise the ponies," said Sue Westwood, clerk to the Verderers. "If commoning was to go into serious decline then the New Forest is at great risk because it is the most efficient way of managing the area."

Ponies are vital to the eco-system of the New Forest. For most of the year they run free and, along with cattle, their grazing keeps heathlands and wooded areas free from dense growth. There are some 3,500 ponies in the forest, owned by some 400 commoners. The commoners have grazing rights which date from William the Conqueror, who created the forest as a royal hunting preserve.

The older commoners express unease at some New Forest inhabitants who, they suspect, view the ponies as little more than expensive pets.

Another problem is that the forest no longer enjoys a monopoly on ponies, with breeders now operating from many other parts of the country.

In an attempt to regenerate the forest economy, the European Union has established a pounds 5m "Life Project" for a wide variety of schemes. A tidy sum has been earmarked for the Verderers to pay the commoners pounds 55 each for the best 500 mares, encouraging breeders to produce a better quality of pony. "Breeders will have to look very hard at their stock and stop breeding from sub- standard mares," said Mrs Lowth. "We have to up the quality and cut the quantity."