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Backbone of Britain: Project aims to protect Cumbria's fell ponies

The hardy fell pony has been part of the Cumbrian landscape for years and, now, thanks to lifelong enthusiast Libby Robinson, their past will be celebrated and their future protected. Danusia Osiowy finds out more.

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On May 22, 2018, a rare occurrence on the Cumbrian Fells took place; 11 fell ponies were returned to their native surroundings, having been living in south western France for a number of years with their owner.

 

While the hardy fell pony has been part of the Lakeland landscape for hundreds of years, numbers in the area are depleting and lifelong fell enthusiast Libby Robinson is determined to preserve and honour their role.

 

Born on her father’s dairy farm in Co Donegal, Northern Ireland, Libby’s passion for ponies was inspired by her childhood memories.

 

She says: “It was a basic childhood impression where my love for them began. This was 1960 and our milk was picked up from our farm by two men with horses and carts.

 

“They would jump down and take a break as they smoked a cigarette and the horses would take themselves off in the yard and back up to where the milk churns out.

 

“The image of this amazing and clever animal, who had an ability to pick up the temperament of the people they worked with, never left me.”

 

Libby and her parents moved from Northern Ireland after her father suffered from premature arthritis and took up residence in Kentmere, Cumbria, after he secured a job working with an animal feed firm.

 

Growing up in the Lake District, Libby, a former shepherdess and agricultural lecturer, has been breeding and working with fell ponies for more than 40 years.

 

She says: “It has always been a dream of mine to be able to help the fell pony. I am very passionate about them as they are such a wonderful breed. They are strong and crucial to our landscape.”


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Native breeds

 

While Libby left the Lake District to move to the South West, then latterly France in 1998 with her partner, her love for fell ponies always went with her.

 

She says: “We couldn’t afford to buy enough land in the UK, so we moved to Charente Limousine in the heart of the French countryside, where we kept three fell mares and a stallion.”

 

The youngstock from her nucleus herd formed the basis of the 11-strong herd she recently established in Tebay, after local landowners agreed the use of the site.

 

The ponies, transported by a racehorse lorry driver, are now at Low Borrowdale Farm, which belongs to Fred and Tor Cavendish, who check the herd daily.

 

Libby says: “The ponies occupy a range of 6,000-1,000ft and are left to naturally graze 50 acres of in-bye grazing in the upland area.”

 

The return of the ponies to their native homeland marks the start of Libby’s lifelong dream to celebrate and protect the fell pony breed, its characteristics and its working practices for future generations.

 

She says: “The Lake District is now a World Heritage site, because of its relationship between humanity and its environment. The semi-wild herds of fell ponies have helped create that landscape. Yet you can easily go down into the streets and ask people if they know about them and nine out of 10 people don’t.

 

“There are now just six breeders of extensively grazed fell pony herds in Cumbria, who run their mares, foals and youngstock on upland grazing.”

 

Christine Kerbeck, who owns her fell pony stud of the same name, agrees that more awareness raised about the ponies’ role across Cumbrian upland can only be beneficial to their future.

 

Situated on the western edge of the Lake District National Park, between the valleys of Ennerdale and Loweswater, Christine has been breeding fell ponies for more than 40 years.

 

Christine, who is also secretary of the Fell Pony Society, says: “The ponies have been on the fells for a couple of thousand years and, just with the likes of the Herdwick, they have played an instrumental role in the management of the farmland, thanks to the way they graze and manage themselves across the land.

 

“The ponies here on the fells are the lifeblood for breed, demonstrating their natural breeding characteristics and hardiness.

 

“People who want to breed on lowland areas go back to the original ponies to ensure they are kept as close to their natural bloodlines as possible.”

Voice

 

The arrival of Libby’s ponies marks the start of the next stage of her project; the launch of a Fell Pony Heritage Centre.

 

She says: “The centre will be a distribution of knowledge, education and information about fell ponies, their role in the cultural heritage of Cumbria and how they are used on traditional hill farms.”

 

The centre will also run a semi-feral herd on the fells to produce working stock for the centre and for sale, ensuring the traditional breed characteristics are preserved.

 

Alongside this will be working demonstrations to showcase their capabilities to generate a wider interest and bring new blood into farming.

 

The relationship between native ponies, their grazing habits and the biodiversity of their environments is something Libby feels particularly passionate about, as she looks to promote awareness of upland hill farmers in the area.

 

She says: “I want people to study the impact of grazing fell ponies in an upland environment and, hopefully, it will also become an advisory centre for hill farmers and give them a voice to explain what it is like to be part of the environment they live in.

 

“These farmers are the grass roots in giving practical advice on stockmanship and fell grazing.

“Since 2001, the fell has been under-grazed and hill farmers with fell pony herds have noticed how much good the ponies do in winter grazing rougher grasses and eating rushes so the sweeter shorter grass will be there for sheep in spring.

 

“I hope the Fell Pony Heritage Centre will become a much-needed voice for hill farmers in the influential corridors of power with particular importance for Cumbrian hill farmers with breeding herds of ponies on the commons.

 

“Time is running out to help keep fell pony herds on the upland fells. The upland fells are the ponies’ natural feeding grounds and part of our landscape. Traditional farming of this kind should be treasured, not destroyed.”

Hill pomies

  • Semi-feral herds of fell ponies have helped create the landscape of the Lake District
  • Their ability to survive in the tough terrain of the fells made them efficient working horses used for transporting wool and other farm goods
  • The ponies conserve flowers and fields through their grazing
  • Traditionally used as working animals on hill farms
  • The fell pony is now an endangered species
  • The Queen has ridden fell ponies since a girl and breeds them too
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