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Plan to use Welsh herds as tourist pack ponies aims to boost threatened groups

Threatened Welsh mountain pony herds could be given a boost by a fresh initiative to use the hardy natives as pack ponies for tourists.

Graham “Will” Williams, who ran a traditional pony trekking business in Powys for 30 years, has started up new venture Hooftrek, training feral ponies to carry bags on hikes across the hills.

While the popular Welsh breed exists in healthy numbers, the hefted herds that have lived wild on the mountains for hundreds of years are dwindling, as the hill farmers who own them grow old. There are now less than 500 breeding mares on the mountains across Wales.

While the herds were once a magnet for buyers, there are so many domestic breeding populations, these ponies earn little money for the farmers, and the younger generations are not interested in preserving them.

“I have become very aware that on the hills these feral ponies are disappearing very quickly,” Graham said. “There are thousands of Welsh mountain ponies throughout the world but those ponies would never survive on the hills, they wouldn’t know how to.

“The ponies here play a significant role in looking after the environment, they graze differently to sheep, and they are also a tourist attraction.”

Graham and business partner Lyndy Cook started training feral ponies to work carrying packs last year and hoped to launch the new business this summer, until Covid put the plans on hold.

Graham believes the model they are trying out in Wales could be used with native pony populations across Britain, helping to forge a viable economic future for endangered herds.

“It’s not a new idea, it was first done in France in the 1970s,” he said. “Donkeys there had been very much a part of working farms and then mechanisation took over. They turned them all into part of the leisure industry, carrying kit for tourists on trips around the B&Bs. It spread to Italy and Portugal — I thought if they could work that model with donkeys, then we could do it here for our native ponies.”

Hooftrek has been working hard to perfect a model for their trips, with a lot of effort going into sourcing the right equipment for the job.

“We needed panniers that were easy for people to get on and off and in the end we sourced some from British Columbia in Canada,” he said. “We hope eventually it is something we could roll out to other people, complete with kit and trained ponies if they wanted.”

The pack ponies will be used on treks on foot by hikers and families, who will camp out, as well as being used for Duke of Edinburgh Award activities. Graham’s other business, Freerein, which has now been taken over by his son, has been offering guided and unaccompanied pony treks across Wales for the past 30 years, travelling from Powys to Snowdonia, Pembroke, mid-Wales and the Menai Straits while staying at B&Bs.

“At the moment what we are offering with the ponies is on foot but there could be some crossover in future with people riding a horse and taking a pack pony with them — we’ve done a lot of work with this ourselves but we have never done it commercially,” he said.

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“What we are aiming for with Hooftrek is partly the family market, there’s appeal for people in looking after these small ponies. We’ll give people a day’s instruction before they start and they’ll be able to go out on their own or with a guide.”

While he hopes to be able to work with the Duke of Edinburgh scheme this autumn, the treks are now expected to launch next year.

“We’re really hoping it is something that will catch on. We’re copying something that already works extremely well on the continent and it could be something that will offer all of our natives — including Dartmoors, Exmoors, New Forests and Fells — more value,” he added.

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