Yesterday a visitor to Willowtrail Farm asked what other breeds contributed to the Fell Pony. I didn’t have a ready answer since it’s not a question I’ve been asked before. Most people come to me already knowing that Fells are one of Britain’s native pony breeds, and that they evolved over centuries, developing unique characteristics reflecting their home terrain and historic uses. This person, though, came to me because she was looking for a larger pony with a temperament appropriate for children but with enough bone and substance for an adult to ride.
I’ve been around the Fell Pony breed long enough, of course, to produce an answer to this question reasonably quickly. One thing that helped was having just read the most recent article on my desk about genetic diversity in pony breeds. This particular article called out Fells as having unique genetic characteristics relative to the other breeds in the study.
The study was undertaken to increase knowledge of Canadian equine genetic resources in response to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Parties to the Convention are supposed to ‘examine genetic diversity and to develop optimal conservation strategies for their farm animal genetic resources.’ (1) I decided to look at the study in detail after receiving the most recent newsletter of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. In that newsletter, the changes to their Conservation Priority List were included, and the most notable for me was that the Newfoundland Pony changed status from Watch to Critical. Undoubtedly this study contributed to the increased interest in the Newfoundland Pony.
I was interested to learn that of the 700 equine populations worldwide, 181 are at some risk of extinction, and many of these are pony breeds. I also found it interesting that the study specifically focused on pony breeds because some research has indicated that ponies tend to have unique genetic markers from horses. The study was also focused on breeds thought to have contributed to the Newfoundland Pony, including the Fell.
Included in the report was a phylogenetic tree. Not surprisingly, Fell and Dales Ponies were paired together, with the Highland Pony being next closest. While the Clydesdale and the Eriskay were on the same branch, I was interested to see that they were closer to each other than to the Dales or Highland. Those breeds are sometimes said to contain Clydesdale blood, and the Eriskay is often considered to be a close relative to the Highland. My reading of the tree calls these assumptions into question. I’ll be interested to see how others interpret it.
One analysis done in this study called special attention to the Fell. When Fells were removed from the population using a particular analytical technique, the loss of genetic diversity was second only to when a Canadian equine population was removed (Sable Island). This indicated to me that Fells are genetically unique compared to the other breeds in the study (including Welsh, Connemara, New Forest, Kerry Bog, Exmoor, and Dartmoor.) I had heard anecdotally several years ago that Fells were second only to Exmoors in the purity of their genetics. This special note about Fells gave more depth to that anecdote.
Fells are one of four mountain and moorland breeds that were called out for conservation (along with Eriskay, Exmoor, and Highland), in addition to two Canadian populations. As in the previous genetic diversity study that I reviewed, I’ve learned that our breed has important unique characteristics that have been well-preserved by past stewards. Our charge as current stewards, of course, is to extend that preservation work into the future, so that the public at large can enjoy a larger pony that has a temperament appropriate around children with a body substantial enough for adults.
- Prystupa, et al. “Genetic diversity and admixture among Canadian, Mountain and Moorland and Nordic pony populations,” Animal, The Animal Consortium, May 2011, p. 1
This article is now included in my book Fell Ponies: Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here.