Welcome to my first official blog post for tales from a wild heart! Through these blog posts I’d love to tell you the the stories behind the photographs and a little more about the subjects. My latest collection is called Wild Hearts and is about all our equine native horses and ponies, with a focus on endangered breeds. The Wild Hearts collection has caused me and my camera to go far and wide across the UK, from the sweeping fells in Cumbria, the hills of the Hebrides, the vast landscapes of Exmoor and even further beyond causing me to travel thousands of miles on my journey.
The reason behind embarking on this mammoth photography series was to create a body of work which captures the heart and soul of our native breeds.To show the world how important these breeds are for our heritage and our land displaying the beauty of every horse in its natural habitat. I’m passionate about creating a very special art book to preserve the beauty and heart of some of the rarest native breeds. Today, I really want to talk about one of my very first breeds I photographed for Wild Hearts, a breed that is very close to my heart.
The Hardy Fell Pony
The Rare Breed Survival Trust has classed the Fell pony as endangered, meaning there are only 6,500 left in the world. An important element of my series was to photograph all the semi-wild native breeds in their own environment. To begin the project, I photographed the Dalewin Fell ponies. They are all owned by Hill Farmers dedicated to maintaining the semi-wild pony herds, who live in the hills across the vast Cumbrian Fells.
There are no Fells that are truly “wild” in the sense of “belonging to no-one”; Every pony is owned by someone, though they may be running free on hundreds of acres of common land. The local farms that have “fell rights”, giving their owners commoners’ rights to turn-out ponies on the fell. These hill bred ponies form a Hardy Fell Pony that maintains the type of the ideal Fell pony.
I was so struck by the splender and rugged beauty of the uplands. Seeing the ponies free-living wild in their rightful home was so breathtaking. The Fell ponies play an important part in the role of biodiversity upon the Fells. The breed is considered to be a conservation grazer helping the landscape to naturally regenerate. Sheep move slowly, close-cropping everything in their path but conservation grazers eat more selectively, creating an open sward to allow plants and trees to germinate and regenerate. The ponies large hooves break up the ground, helping seeds to develop whilst increasing plant fertility and diversity. One of our most historic native breeds is bringing back a greater variety of insects, birds, mammals as well as plants. So, as you can see the importance of the fell pony remain, gracing our harshest uplands is so important.
However, even though the Fell ponies have shaped the landscape of its home on the fells of northern England; The Fell ponies face grave uncertainty with DEFRA and Natural England’s farming stewardship schemes are diminishing their future. Consequently, farmers are giving up the tradition of pony-keeping on the uplands. The land owners are taking tenant agreements back off farmers and are then receiving money to plant trees, shrubs and huge swathes of the uplands where the Fell pony grazes. These lands will also be fenced off, reducing the grazing abilities of the ponies. Without such grazing opportunities, our native free ponies will eventually disappear from our countryside.
Rewilding policies also mean that they wish farmers to remove their ponies from the the fells (from the months May to October) and place them in stables, confined to a domestic lifestyle. Natural England says this is to reduce the grazing upon the Fells and promote biodiversity. But, why would they want to remove the very animal which has shaped the Cumbrian fells for centuries and contributes so much to the biodiversity of this land?
I was lucky enough to speak to Libby Robinson, who is a Fell Pony Breeder and founder of the Fell Pony Heritage Trust.To try and get to the heart of the challenges faced by the semi wild Fell Ponies I asked Elizabeth the founder of the Fell pony Heritage Trust her thoughts. –
“Breeding and raising Fell Ponies is part of their family heritage and to the hill breeders it is a national treasure to be part of their way of life. Why are environmental officials wanting to rewild fell commons that are already wild? The grazing mosaic of the uplands has been there for a thousand years. The landscape is why the Lake District is now a World Heritage site with its unique hefted farming history.
The Government should be listening to the hill farmers as they are the advisers of how the landscape will survive, not the other way round. Conservation biodiversity should be used to promote a local and traditional way of life. Grazing opportunities like the Gowbarrow Hall Farm regenerative management project demonstrates an effective way of giving semi-wild Fell ponies a job while they are growing up, a very helpful incentive to hill breeders. Wildlife lovers who come to the fells can witness herds of native ponies helping to maintain nesting sites for native birds and their continued right to roam grazing the vegetation keeping open the footpaths and making the landscape more beautiful.
We are not looking for a Degree of Wildness on the up land fells, we are looking for ways to farm in nature’s image. I care about the pony herds and support the hill farmers/breeders of the ponies in their efforts to help heal the vast landscapes which we all depend on. You cannot restore an ecosystem if key species like the Fell Pony disappear.
Fell ponies will only be truly conserved if they are allowed to continue living on the Fells as this is their native environment and their management on the fell make them what they are today. This native breed quickly loses many of their traits if taken away from the fell ground with better grazing and different management.”
Speaking with Libby was such an inspiration and has certainly given me even more of a drive to complete this collection. We are responsible for conserving our heritage and rare native breeds. We all, as a collective, need to strive for better ways to reach a balance within our environment and understand that there can be catastrophic impact on our native breeds, all at the hands of policies which are supposed to benefit the natural environment.
Libby continued our conversation and concluded:
“Ultimately, we need to raise the profile of the hill-bred Fell pony and work towards its positive inclusion in management plans, so that breeders keep their freedom of choice and receive support for traditional farming of this kind which should be treasured, not destroyed. Unless something is done about the threat to the hill bred Fell pony herds they will be lost.”
If you would like to help the Fell pony, please sign this petition below so it can be presented to DEFRA to change their grazing policies towards the Fell pony so that they can remain on the Cumbria fells all the year round on a permanent basis.