Dwindling numbers of the iconic semi-feral ponies of Hampshire’s New Forest have afforded them rare breed status in Britain.
The New Forest Pony has been named in the Rare Breeds Survival Trust’s 2014 watchlist as a category-5 minority breed.
Supporters of the ponies says rapidly changing market conditions in recent years have changed the horse world, probably forever.
Nationally, Britain is in the midst of a horse crisis fueled by over-population. Prices are low and pure-bred foals from registered rare-breed equines have to compete on the open market and with so many horses available for sale, with buyers hard to find.
For all British native equine breeds, including those in category-6 not actually classified as rare, actual registration figures for 2012 are lower than in previous years . Most societies report that 2013 figures will be even further reduced.
Ironically, welfare issues, and the responsible actions taken by breeders, are partly the reason for the New Forest pony coming on to the trust’s watchlist, breed supporters say.
The New Forest ponies have always been managed, but the level of management increased in 2002, with the introduction of the Verderers Stallion Reduction Scheme, fully supported by the New Forest Pony Breeding and Cattle Society and the New Forest Commoners Defence Association.
This meant that when the market took a severe downturn in 2009-2010, in line with the prevailing economic conditions throughout the country, the New Forest Pony community was in a good position to respond quickly.
The number of stallions released into the forest for the breeding season was reduced still further and registered pure-bred foal numbers in 2013 – both stud and forest-bred – were less than one third of those in 2009.
Group that support the bred, including the breed society, the commoners association, the New Forest Livestock Society, and Verderers of the New Forest, say they have been applauded by the welfare organisations such as British Horse Society and the National Equine Welfare Council for their responsible approach to changing welfare and market conditions.
“However, as a consequence of this the New Forest Pony now enters the 2014 Watchlist of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, as a category-5, minority, breed,” the groups said in a statement.
“This means that the New Forest pony has fallen below the 3000 threshold for registered adult breeding females for the first time.
“Now officially a rare breed, it is important to help ensure the genetic diversity of this reducing population is maintained.”
Breed society secretary Jane Murray said: “We are walking a tightrope,” but added that steps had already been put in place to meet the challenges ahead.
The breed society has already booked tests to obtain more gene data. “This analysis will build on the previous one we had done in 2010, which will become baseline data, as most of the reduction has occurred since then. It will concentrate on the kinship relationships between the current 140 stallions and will look at the progeny numbers of those stallions, so that the Rare Breeds Survival Trust can give advice on how our stallions can best be used to maintain genetic diversity.”
The breed society began a Futurity Scheme in the autumn of 2013, when colt foals were assessed for their potential as future stallions to run in the forest, noting in particular their bloodlines.
These colts will be assessed as yearlings in a further assessment later this spring, when premiums will be awarded and grazing supplied, with financial support from the Verderers Higher Level Stewardship scheme.
The verderers ran a selective breeding project in 2011 which has resulted in five colts of diverse bloodlines, who will come forward this spring for inspection as potential stallions to run in the Forest, and this breeding project is to be repeated again this year.
New Forest Commoners Defence Association chairman Graham Ferris said his body recognised how difficult it was to reconcile the need to have a limited breeding programme in light of market conditions with the need to preserve the diversity of bloodlines. For that reason, he said, the association fully supported the measures that the breed society and the verderers group had put in place.
With the current combination of over-supply and economic pressures continuing to depress the national equine market, the New Forest pony community and rare breeds trust cannot ethically encourage widespread breeding.
“We will be working together to breed responsibly to maintain genetic diversity and fulfil our obligations as the guardians of one of the UK’s most iconic native breeds and part of our national heritage,” the statement said.