The New Forest
The New Forest pony is a well known symbol of and attraction to the New Forest, and many visitors to the area don’t realise that these ponies are not wild, but are all privately owned by local people.
But it’s easy to see why New Forest ponies are often mistaken as being wild – they are free to roam all around the Open Forest and can appear more or less anywhere at anytime. Their movements are restricted only by fencing and cattle grids on every road that crosses the New Forest area boundary (not the general National Park boundary).
New Forest pony owners are known as ‘Commoners‘, a term that dates back to when the New Forest was first created in 1079 by King William I.
The ponies that you see today on the Open Forest are being allowed to graze (‘depastured’). This is a right of the Commoner, and again comes from the time of King William, when local animal owners were permitted to graze their livestock on open Crown land, in return for abiding by the very strict Forest Laws put in place to protect the natural wildlife of the area.
However, this right (along with several other commoning rights) is attached to the property of the Commoner, not the person.
The ponies in the New Forest are cared for not only by the owners but also by Agisters, the employees of the Verderers of the New Forest. The Verderers are the local governing body for all present day New Forest activity regarding animal ownership and land use.
The most intense times for controlling the ponies are the ‘drifts‘ which take place around autumn time. All New Forest ponies are rounded up by the Agisters, Commoners and volunteer helpers and are counted for, marked and checked over for any health problems that might have gone unnoticed.
A marking fee is paid to the Agisters, by the Commoners, for every New Forest pony that is depastured. This fee goes towards covering the cost of managing the animals and the Agister’s duties. When a payment is received the tail hair of that pony is cut a certain way, with each Agister having his own unique cut pattern.
A New Forest pony must also be branded to identify the owner, before they are allowed to roam freely.
Once the drifts are complete, auctions are held at the Beaulieu Road Pony Sales, a few miles east of Lyndhurst. The original holding pens, recently replaced and improved, were once in Lyndhurst but were moved to their present location shortly after the railway line was extended across the New Forest, making after-sales transport of livestock a bit easier.
The earliest official New Forest pony sales were recorded almost a century ago.
Nearly every New Forest pony, because of its nature and relationship with man, is quite happy to be approached while out on the Open Forest.
Visitors who assume that they are wild animals are often surprised to be able to walk up to a pony and touch it, without it running away! However, approaching the animals is not encouraged because it can lead to the ponies becoming more reliant on visitors to the New Forest for food, and draws them off the Open Forest and closer to villages and roads.
Ponies and New Forest roads
The one big disadvantage with allowing ponies (along with Commoner-owned cattle and pigs) to graze on the Open Forest is that they mix with traffic on many of the unfenced New Forest roads.
Sadly, each year a number of animals are killed or injured after colliding with motor vehicles. Despite the major roads across the New Forest being fenced (notably the A31 and A35), the smaller ones are not and any animal is free to wander into the path of oncoming traffic.
In 1990 a uniform 40mph speed limit was put into effect on all minor New Forest roads in a bid to cut the number of animal deaths. While statistics did drop initially, and still remain noticeably lower, animal deaths began to rise over the following years as drivers became complacent and ignored the speed limit, one which is not so easy to police on a large scale.
Various other speed-reducing experiments have been tried, such as speed ramps and giving priority to oncoming traffic on narrower sections of road, but none have had an outstanding effect. One recent innovation was the New Forest pony reflective neck band, which make the ponies much more visible at night – the worst time for ponies getting knocked down on the dark, unlit roads.
If you are involved in, or witness, a road accident with any animal on a New Forest road you must call the police as soon as possible.
[Read more on New Forest roads & safety.]