It is commonly thought in the Fell Pony world that once Fell Ponies leave the fells, they can never return. Often they grow too large, and they don’t have the wisdom or the hardiness to survive on the rough open terrain that has shaped the breed.
This situation is a challenge for the breed because the number of hill-bred ponies is in decline because the number of hill breeders is dropping. And even if fell ground becomes available to put ponies on, there may not be breeders willing to do the work of keeping the ponies on the fell because it is very hard work with little financial reward. As the late Chris Thompson once said, “You’ve got to be interested in them to carry the Fell ponies on; it’s got to be in the blood.” (1)
I got a sliver of hope in the face of this difficult situation when talking to someone who has fell ground on which they run their equine herd. While it isn’t currently a herd of Fell Ponies, they have however witnessed what many Fell Pony stewards have: that putting an animal on the fell that wasn’t born there causes that animal significant physical stress. Yet the good news is that while the first year is rough, after that, they seem to adapt and begin to thrive there. My friend obviously chooses their equines with this management scheme in mind; not every equine could adapt to fell living. Nonetheless, it’s encouraging to know that an equine born away from the fell can become a lowercase fell pony.
Every bit of fell ground is different of course. One of the most challenging fell environments is Birkbeck Common where the Greenholme herd runs. While it is a good place to cure a pony of sweet itch, which Bill Potter has done a number of times for frustrated owners, Bill says it can take as long as three years for a pony that leaves there and then returns to reacclimatize. (2)
If somehow we can reverse the trend of losing hill breeders, then Fell Ponies will still be able to call the terrain that bears their name home. And if necessary, perhaps Fell Ponies reared away from their native ground can be returned there, carefully, becoming fell ponies in both the upper case and lower case sense of the term.
- Millard, Sue. “The Drybarrows Ponies – Legacy of Chris Thompson,” People & Ponies page of Fell Pony Society website, http://www.fellponysociety.org.uk
- Personal communication with Bill Potter, 2009.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2017
Other things that I’ve learned about Fell Ponies can be found in my book Fell Ponies: Observations about the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.