When James Young’s great- great-great-grandmother married in 1850, she brought eight New Forest pony mares to the village of Setley as her dowry. Today their descendants continue to graze the ancient common and although they are far less valuable than they used to be, for James, who belongs to one of the New Forest’s oldest commoning families, caring for the ponies is in his blood.
If you wanted to make lots of money you wouldn’t common and you wouldn’t farm but it’s our way of life, he explains cheerfully.
The ponies are the architects of the New Forest. The tradition of grazing dates back to the 11th century when William the Conqueror turned the land into his royal hunting ground and locals, banned from hunting, were granted rights of commoning.
Continual grazing over 900 years has shaped the 29,000 hectares of lowland heath, woodland, grassland and mires, as well as the forest’s flora and fauna, which has adapted to the chomping of cattle, ponies and deer. Without grazing, the New Forest would be a jungle of scrubland.
But this month the naturalist Chris Packham said he fears the biodiversity of the New Forest is being destroyed by the growing number of ponies. He cited the destruction of ancient beech trees by starving ponies, along with a broken subsidy system encouraging commoners to turn out more ponies and cattle.
It’s a bleak image of the forest that sits at odds with the experience of visiting the National Trust park during the booming summer season, when families flood the forest to coo over the mares and their curious foals.
The ponies are a huge draw for tourism, but can you have too much of a good thing? The answer, bafflingly, is that although the numbers of cattle and ponies have increased from 2,000 in 1960 to more than 7,000 today, New Forest ponies are far from thriving.
Tom Beeston of the Rare Breeds Society says: The New Forest pony came on to our rare breeds list about two years ago. It’s frightening. I would predict there are less than 2,000 breeding mares in the whole country.
Their struggle is linked to the poor equine market, which makes it almost impossible for New Forest commoners to make a living through raising horses alone. Many, like James Young, have full-time jobs and graze their animals as a low-paying hobby; the continuation of a tradition.
We didn’t want surplus animals we couldn’t sell flooding the forest, says Suzanne Kempe, who, as chairman of the New Forest Pony and Cattle Breeding Society, is tasked with managing the supply and demand of New Forest ponies. Where 12 years ago 200 stallions would be turned out on the common all year round, today the society caps the figure at 15 stallions, for only five weeks a year. As a breed society we’ve done a great amount to make sure the population hasn’t exploded, she says.
If the fall in New Forest ponies calls into question Packham’s assertion that they’re ruining the landscape – then what of the other equines, including donkeys and Shetland ponies, so visible on the common? In an ideal world we would only have registered New Forest mares and their progeny on the forest, says Suzanne.
To control numbers, the verderers, the ancient officials of the forest established in William the Conqueror’s time, have withdrawn subsidies on the Verderers Grazing Scheme for non-registered ponies (as well as New Forest geldings). However they concede Packham is rightly concerned about abuse of the Basic Payment Scheme (a separate EU subsidy), but claim only a minority of commoners are responsible.
While none of the various bodies overseeing the national park would want animal numbers to further increase, they are unanimous on the issue of overgrazing: there is currently no problem.
But what of the stripped beech tree that Packham described as heartbreaking? An isolated incident, say the Forestry Commission and the offending ponies have been withdrawn from the common.
For Suzanne, the ponies are themselves proof the situation is under control. If there wasn’t enough food the ponies would be in a bad condition and removed, she says. The twice-yearly welfare checks by bodies such as the Horse Society and the RSPCA are yet to raise any issues.
Jenny Thomas, ecologist and Lead Advisor in the New Forest for Natural England, who is constantly looking for signs of overgrazing, says: My main worry is loss of commoning, rather than too much. That’s when we lose all these special species that have their stronghold in the New Forest.
It could go the same way as all the other commons in Britain where there’s a desperate attempt to reintroduce grazing.
Thomas says her other big concern is that landowners are not given sufficient funding for commoning, which helps to naturally manage the land. To completely de-incentivise the practice, she fears, would have severe consequences for the whole New Forest.
The forest is the last remaining stronghold of a lot of species. There’s marsh clubmoss, a funny little plant that grows where the animals’ hooves trample the ground and create a really muddy area, and the pillwort, Britain’s smallest fern. It looks like a very green fine grass and grows only where you have really heavy trampling from the animals. Small fleabane thrives on what we would consider in conservation terms terrible mistreatment.
She refutes the contention that no regeneration is taking place, citing figures from Natural England’s 2015 assessment that stated 53.27 per cent of the forest was in favourable condition while 45.49 per cent is in unfavourable condition but recovering.
The rude health of the New Forest’s ponds, as well as the presence of invertebrates such as the fairy shrimp and carnivorous plants, Jenny credits to grazing.
And what about the species that aren’t currently thriving? Jenny’s response is clarion: People would like it to be everything to everyone, but that isn’t what the New Forest is. It has to support the species that have adapted to this long history of grazing.
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