The New Forest really is one of nature’s masterpieces. Located in southern England, the nearest town is the Port of Southampton. It was first declared the New Forest in the days of William the Conqueror around the year 1079 and was recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086.
Arriving in the New Forest shortly after dawn on a beautiful English summer’s day is something that everyone should experience. The first indication that I was entering a timeless land was the sound of the car rumbling over a cattle grid, heralding my arrival into this pony populated province, where the animals of the forest have priority over other road users. “Beware of Wild Horses” road signs remind motorists to be alert to four-legged road users, often with questionable road sense!
NEW FOREST PONIES
It really is like stepping into a seemingly magical land, comprising breathtaking views over wetlands, woodland, pasture and heathland that support myriad flora and fauna. Within minutes of my arrival, I happened upon a small group of bracken-bedecked ponies and foals enjoying the sun in a small clearing not far from the road. The ponies spend up to 80% of their time foraging for food and are often described as the “architects of the forest” along with the free-ranging cattle and donkeys with whom they share their rich environment. Without the constant grazing of these animals, the forest would soon become overgrown with dense vegetation.
The New Forest comprises of 71,500 acres (310 sq km), boasting some wonderfully named villages and areas, such as Nomansland, Slap Bottom, Sandy Balls, Pig Bush, Horseshoe Bottom, Slop Bog and Lover! The soil is predominantly of poor quality and therefore not suitable for growing crops, but perfect for grazing animals. The local inhabitants known as “Commoners” have had rights for hundreds of years to turn out their horses, donkeys and cattle to graze the land, and continue to do so to this day. Each pony that they own must be marked and registered and an annual fee paid. The ponies display their owner’s individual brand and also have their tails cut in one of four distinct styles, to indicate that their owner has paid the yearly grazing fee. Many of the ponies now sport a reflective collar to lessen the chances of road traffic collisions.
Of the 16 native breeds in the United Kingdom, the New Forest Pony presents in many different colours. Remarkably, their heritage includes a number of different breeds including Arab, Thoroughbred, Hackney and other native breeds such as Welsh, Dales, Fell, Highland, Dartmoor and Exmoor. As a result, the colours of the ponies vary tremendously but the most common are bay, grey and chestnut. They are allowed white markings on the head and legs. I saw just about every colour of pony that could be imagined and even a few that are not recognised by the New Forest Breeding Society! Although flourishing, the New Forest Pony is still on the Rare Breed Survival Trusts watch list for 2021.