The New Forest pony, one of Britain’s oldest and best-loved natives, is on the verge of becoming a rare breed.
The number of adult breeding females is around 3,300, just 300 above the level considered to be “at risk” by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST).
“We are monitoring the New Forest closely, because when a breed hovers just above that 3,000 threshold, it doesn’t take much for its numbers to plummet,” said Claire Barber of the RBST.
“Because of the lack of a market since the 2008 credit crunch, there is nothing to suggest that this downward trend will cease,” she added.
All the British native breeds, except the Shetland and Welsh sections, are on the RBST watchlist. Category one breeds, such as the hackney, are considered “critical”, while category four — including the Fell, Highland and shire — are deemed “at risk”.
The plight of the New Forest highlights a dilemma for responsible breeders. They have reduced numbers due to the depressed market, but must still maintain genetic diversity.
“We are walking a tightrope,” said Jane Murray of the New Forest Pony Breeding and Cattle Society.
“Last year, we only turned out 10 stallions on the Forest. Before 2002, there was something like 100 stallions out. NEWC [the National Equine Welfare Council] and the BHS [British Horse Society] have applauded us and said we’re showing the way,” she added.
“But, of course, our gene pool is declining; it’s an inevitable consequence.”
Shirley Young of Farriers Stud — whose Farriers Fingerprint won the Olympia ridden mountain and moorland championship in 2009 — agreed that breeders were “scratching their heads to know what to do for the best”.
But she believes that people are getting the message about indiscriminate breeding.
“Certainly, with my stallions, I am now seeing people who have really made sure that the foal is being bred for a purpose,” she told H&H.
Mrs Young hopes that the new separate Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) classes for New Forests and Connemaras this year (9-13 October) will help to showcase the breed.
“They are terrific performance ponies, but usually come with a lovely, even temperament as well,” she added.