A scheme to save New Forest ponies from acorn poisoning has been hailed a success by the forest verderers. Ponies and cattle can be poisoned by green acorns – 43 have died from poisoning so far this year – but pigs are not affected by them.

More than 500 pigs were let out into the forest at the start of Pannage season in November – the largest number for decades. “The pigs have done a really good job,” said Jonathan Gerrelli, New Forest head agister, “the scheme has definitely been a success.”

Pannage, an age-old custom of letting pigs into the New Forest to fatten them up for Christmas, has been extremely popular with forest commoners (land owners) this year. But although the commoners are not required to bring in their animals until the end of December, many pigs have already been rounded up.

“As we get towards the end of Pannage and the acorns run out the pigs start to wander,” Mr Gerrelli explained, “and although the pigs are very friendly there is bound to come a time when they come into contact with members of the public who are not geared up towards animals.”

Reports of pigs chasing dogs and dog walkers, horses and riders and breaking into people’s gardens have been on the increase this year. “The problem with pigs is that you need a very good fence,” Mr Gerrelli admitted. “A sow can become quite protective – you must adapt your behaviour accordingly.”

A student walking in the forest filmed a policeman and dog as they were chased by a herd of pigs. “The man was walking his young police dog and decided to introduce it to a pig. Unfortunately the pig collected 15 of his friends and chased the policeman and dog back to his car,” explained Sue Westwood, Clerk to the Verderers. Click here to watch video.

Unfortunately, due to the glut of acorns this year, there is still likely to be a few poison-related deaths before the end of 2006. “Poisoned ponies don’t die instantly – it takes a while for them to feel the effects,” Mr Gerrelli said. “But the pigs have eaten most of the acorns so there should be no more poisoning in the New Year.”