Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Ponies of the New Forest, Hampshire, England

Last month my sisters met me on the day that I arrived in England and we stopped for lunch in the village of Beaulieu, which is located on the south eastern edge of the New Forest National Park in Hampshire. Beaulieu has a population of 829 people and is 92 miles SW of London.

Rooftop of one of the local cottages

Some of the local points of interest are the Palace House which overlooks the village from across Beaulieu River. It began in 1204 as the gatehouse to Beaulieu Abbey, and has been the ancestral home of a branch of the Montagu family since 1538, when it was bought from the crown following the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII.
Although still home to the current Lord and Lady Montagu, parts of the house and gardens are open daily to the public. 
The estate includes the British National Motor Museum with over 250 vintage and historic cars on display including Donald Campbell's Bluebird.

The New Forest Pony is considered to have a gentle temperament, and the ponies are noted for their intelligence, strength and versatility. New Foresters are amongst the most approachable of all the native British pony breeds, perhaps because of their history of frequent contact with humans.

The New Forest Pony is one of the recognized Mountain and moorland or Native pony breeds of the British Isles. The breed is valued for its hardiness, strength and sureness of foot. It is indigenous to the New Forest and many ponies can still be seen roaming loose there.

The earliest record of horses in the New Forest dates back to 1016 when rights of common pasture were granted to the people living in what was a royal hunting ground. 

The ponies living full-time on the New Forest are almost all mares. For much of the year the ponies live in small groups, usually consisting of an older mare, her daughters and their foals, all keeping to a discrete area of the Forest called a haunt.

The cattle and ponies living on the New Forest are not feral, but are owned by commoners (local people with common grazing rights), who pay a fee each year for each animal turned out. The animals are looked after by their owners and by the Agisters, employees of the Verderers of the New Forest – the Verderers are a statutory body with ancient roots that shares the management of the forest with the Forestry Commission.

The average height is 4’8”. New Forest Ponies are most commonly bay, chestnut or grey. 

There are approximately 6,500 animals using the right to pasturage, i.e. grazing in the New Forest. These are ponies, donkeys, cattle and pigs.

I know that the word Agister may be new to some of you from other countries. Agisters, in the United Kingdom were formerly the officers of the forest empowered to collect the agistment. They have been re-established in the New Forest to carry out the daily duties of administering the forest.

My family and I have been visiting the New Forest since we were children. It has always been a delight to watch the ponies roam around while freely grazing there, and to realize that this custom has been in place for more than a thousand years. The right to graze animals is one of the Common Rights under ancient forest law. These rights attach to property in the forest so anybody living in a house that has Common Rights attached, gets these rights automatically and they apply equally to property owners and tenants.

The current rights are:

1. Pannage or Mast - the right to turn out pigs between 25th September and 22nd November each year to feed on acorns and beechnuts. Not only does this fatten pigs for Christmas, it also prevents ponies and cattle gorging on acorns which could cause inflammation and death.

2. Common Pasture - the best known of the Common Rights, which is to turn out ponies, cattle and donkeys to graze in the open forest.

Nowadays, only the rights to Common Pasture and Mast are practiced to any extent. The ponies  are predominately New Foresters, some other breeds such as Shetlands are also found in some areas. The lives of the ponies are relatively unhindered by humans unless they need veterinary attention or additional feeding, when they are usually taken off the Forest.

New Forest National Park covers an area of 219 square miles and  contains the highest concentration of very old trees in Europe.


This was the  first day of peacesojourner's meanderings in England. It feels good to be home .  I will share more of my adventures with you later. 

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