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Forest Diary

 The health and wellbeing of New Forest stock

By Esta Mion, Communications Manager at the Forestry CommissionNew Forest pony

A unique way of life exists here in the New Forest, where the ponies, donkeys and cattle roam freely. Many people don’t realise that, though semi-wild, the ponies are all owned by local families, known as Commoners. No pony can be put out to graze in the New Forest unless it’s branded with its owner’s mark and a fee is paid every year to the Agisters, who regularly round-up the stock and check their health.

It’s vital that the tradition of Commoning is maintained as, without the stock, the New Forest would soon become a very different place. The Commoner’s animals feed on the gorse and brambles that would otherwise become overgrown, without grazing, the scrub would develop into mature forest and reduce the ecological value of the area.

Over the centuries, the New Forest pony has developed as a rare breed, perfectly adapted to its local surroundings. They are light and sure-footed to move through the mires and thick scrub, hardy for over-wintering in the open and have developed a thick winter coat and coarse tongue to cope with its prickly winter diet.

The New Forest Verderers’ employ five Agisters, who are responsible for supervising the day-to-day welfare of the stock. They work closely with the owners to monitor the condition of the animals. Every year, there are two welfare tours arranged by the Verderers’ Office. The tours are attended by DEFRA, British Horse Society, and International League for the Protection of Horses, Blue Cross, RSPCA, Donkey Sanctuary, and local veterinary surgeons. I was delighted to be invited to join the recent winter tour, to see how the inspections are carried out and discover more about the much-loved New Forest ponies.

The Verderers were keen to share their expertise and offer an insight into this fantastic place. I was lucky enough to have an expert guide on-hand throughout the tour and as the local Forestry Commission’s office is just next door to the Verderers’ Office it was about time I learnt more about their role.

During the tour experts looked at the animals, checking their condition, as well as the vegetation on the forest floor to see what was still left to eat. It was clear to see that following a wet summer the Forest’s lawns continued to provide ample grazing for the animals.

Even in December, the grass still looked good and this meant that most of the Forest stock has stayed away from eating the acorns (which are poisonous to them). However, the Agisters will watch carefully over the coming weeks and months for signs of ill-health due to acorn poisoning.

All the Commoner’s animals that we saw on the tour looked in excellent condition, especially the young ones. They’ve had the best start to the season with a healthy habitat to graze and as we head into mid-winter they are in great shape to see them through to spring.

New Forest ponies are a hardy breed, adept at moving around the Forest to find the best places to graze. The older mares will usually guide younger ones and they quickly learn which locations yield the best food for them.

After our tour around the forest, we headed back to the Verderers’ Hall in Lyndhurst where we were invited to quiz the Verderers and the Head Agister about what we’d seen during our visit. Amongst the guests were other first-timers on the welfare tour, so I was pleased not to be alone in my experience.

We all expressed how astounded we were about the good health of the ponies; they looked so well and plump! Even the experienced visitors on this tour remarked on how well the Forest stock seemed to be this year. One guest said, “I’ve never seen the ponies look so muscular and well developed”. She noted that the mares in foal looked the fattest she had ever seen and attributed this to the wealth of grass they’d been enjoying throughout the year.

So this demonstrates that the ponies really don’t need to be fed by visitors to the forest. In fact, feeding and petting ponies encourages them to behave badly – pestering picnickers and hanging around busy roads and car parks.

The experience has been a real eye-opener, the tour revealed so much about the farming of the Forest and I hope by sharing this understanding it helps others. It’s good to know more about the ponies unique way of life and appreciate the hard work that goes on behind the scenes of the Verderers’ Office. It’s increased my recognition of how the Verderers and their team care for the health and wellbeing of the Forest stock and protect the Commoning way of life here.

For more information about the Verderers of the New Forest visit www.verderers.org.uk

 

 

 

Last updated: 20th January 2018

England's Woods and Forests are cared for by Forest Enterprise England, an agency of the Forestry Commission.