The Fell Pony Society
Conservation and Grazing
The Society has a Conservation and Grazing sub-committee to promote the use of Fell ponies as native grazers of a managed landscape.
The Fell Pony is a historic part of the Cumbrian countryside and well suited to conservation grazing, being easy to manage and inclined to stay away from people even though there may be public access to the land.
CONSERVATION & GRAZING SUB-COMMITTEE 2021
Facebook page @FPSConservation
The Conservation and Grazing sub-committee covers the remits of breeders and grazing because both issues interlock with regard to handling and management of ponies. We want to share guidance and encouragement. This can come not only from hill breeders but from those who run ponies on allotment land and enclosed lowland, and those who have in-depth knowledge of the impact of ponies on the land, and the effect of the land on the ponies. We hope to work with conservation organisations and landowners to promote the use of Fell Ponies for land management.
We hope to arrange some informal talks and visits in addition to the "Learning With Fells" scheme that the Society has been running since 2009.
Definition of conservation (regenerative) grazing
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust definition:
Conservation grazing is livestock grazing that promotes biodiversity.
Many nature reserves are now managed using grazing animals.
Due to their typically hardy and thrifty nature, our rare and native breeds are generally considered to be the best animals for this job.
Increasingly, the sorts of techniques employed in conservation grazing are being used on in a range of farming systems to create sustainable production with reduced inputs.
This benefits not only livestock and habitats, but also human health... [...]
Fell ponies for grazing projects
The Society encourages the use of Fell ponies for conservation grazing. The Grazing Animals Project Handbook (RBST) gives a full description of their characteristics and suitability for a variety of sites.
Our sub-committee has a wide range of experience in placing ponies on sites, stewarding them and monitoring their impact.
We can give advice and help to get ponies involved in your conservation or reclamation project.
In the first instance, contact Mrs Christine Robinson, Home/Fax: 016973 51854, Mobile: 07802 733309, E-mail: Christine @kerbeck-fell-ponies.co.uk
Rights to graze on hill commons: Free-roaming herds on the fells of Cumbria and Lancashire
Many hectares of "wilderness" in Cumbria and Lancashire carry Fell ponies, using ancient rights to graze on the common land. They are not wild animals in the legal sense - although they do roam freely - but, like sheep and cattle, all these ponies belong to adjoining farms. (For a thorough discussion of these rights please see the long article on page 76 onward in the FPS Magazine, Autumn 2019).
Fell Ponies on allotments / fell ground
Some breeders who do not have fell rights for ponies on common land do own allotments or fell ground and run their ponies there.
These are large stretches of rough unimproved grassland that were formerly part of a high fell but were enclosed from the 18th century onward. Many allotments contain hundreds of acres and are larger than some of the smallest commons. Allotment ground often lies very high and is as challenging as the fell commons, but the owners have more control over potential shelter, grassland management and feeding.
We are planning to ask hill breeders and allotment breeders for data that will enable us to compare these herds.
Encounters with Fell ponies on the fells: How to behave
Fell ponies may be seen on many of the upland commons in Cumbria and Lancashire. They are also used as conservation grazers on a short-term basis, on areas of botanical interest and to support insect and bird populations. Where these areas are also open access under the Rights of Way Act, you may encounter free-roaming ponies.
Please don't approach these ponies, or encourage them to come to you or your car. In particular, don't entice them with food. Although it may be thrilling to have ponies come to take treats from you, if the next family to come along doesn't offer such treats they or their car may end up as the centre of a fight between large, disappointed, grumpy animals using hooves and teeth as weapons.
If ponies come too close despite your self-restraint, point a walking pole or stick at them; a firm prod in the chest will hold them at a distance. Don't hit them, of course!
Please don't chase them, and don't let your dog chase them. Be warned, a few horses (of any breed) will try to kill dogs running loose around them. Keep yours under control and you won't have a problem.
So leave the ponies alone and admire them from a distance, for your own safety!
How Ponies and Cattle Benefit Uplands
Large grazing animals have a major influence on the control of coarse vegetation. The main comminuters are cattle, ponies and sheep, although older sheep are drafted down the hill as teeth wear. Without this pattern of farming the land would revert to scrub. Cattle are tending to be less numerous. Without the breakdown of fibrous vegetation, the natural mosaic in moorland vegetation (upland grasses, heather, bracken sphagnum) would be lost.
Moorland is acidic from rainwater, so blanket bog develops. These peaty, wet acidic organic soils do not have the earthworm population to act as invertebrate comminuters, and a slower process is occurring with the smaller enchytraeid worms.
Organic matter accumulates slowly to form peat; the main plant involved is sphagnum moss, which is pickled in this acidic environment, and being waterlogged, air is excluded, and decomposition nil, thus acting as a permanent carbon sink. The upland peat in Britain is more prevalent than Europe, and should be protected.
The major grazers that are on the moor permanently become hefted to their particular moor, over generations, after being shepherded originally by graziers. These animals have knowledge of where to find water, shelter, and the best grazing for the time of year. Moreover they do not stray onto other moors, and they share their knowledge with their offspring, conferring this advantage to them, which serves them well in harsh weather. This will be lost if they are taken off the moor.
Upland moor is fragile, and is soon damaged, but takes decades to recover. Rare plants found in nutrient poor blanket bog especially butterbur and sundew will disappear.
There is no quick fix. Areas above the natural tree line would not support re-forestation. Conifers are not native and a sterile understorey would result in loss of species diversity. If peatland drains then carbon is returned to the atmosphere.
Ann Dunning, February 2021