As many of you know, I am immensely passionate about Britain’s native breed ponies and horses. My fine art project, “Wild Hearts”, celebrates these wonderful animals and, as often as possible, I photograph them in their natural habitat (searching for semi-feral herds of ponies over moors and mountainous terrain has the added bonus of keeping me fit!). My heartfelt wish is to help raise the profile of native breeds and in so doing help, in some small way, to conserve them for future generations.
When I embarked on my “Wild Hearts” project it shocked me to learn that 12 out of Britain’s 14 native breeds of horses and ponies are classed as rare. Through my photographic art I hope I capture some of the majesty of these wonderful animals whose stories are sewn into the very fabric and history of our country.
Recently my quest for native ponies took me almost as far North as we can go on this island of ours! Packing up the car in the glorious Spring sunshine myself and my 4 intrepid explorers – Sean, Mae, Ruby and Caira set off up the M6 and pretty much just kept going before turning left to reach Oban – gateway to the Outer Hebrides.
My mission was to find the gentle Eriskay ponies whose native home is, unsurprisingly, Eriskay island, which has the distinguished claim to fame of being where Bonnie Prince Charlie first set foot on Scottish soil. As it is rather an epic journey to make we decided to combine it with a family holiday and I have to say, I am so glad we did. The scenery on the drive, especially through the highlands was just breathtaking and there was just so much that we wanted to see and explore.
In Oban, we took the ferry to Barra Island which was to be our base. Just 8 miles long and 5 miles at its widest point, what it lacks in size I can honestly say it makes up for in scenery and character. By the time we had reached Barra, we had missed the last (of 2 per day!) ferry to Eriskay so we checked into our hotel and settled down to enjoy some wonderful seafood and I may have partaken in a chilled glass of Chablis!
The next day we woke up to another stunning day – cornflower blue skies and a verdant green landscape. It promised to be a wonderful day for taking photographs. Now all we had to do was find the ponies! The ferry took 40 minutes and then we were there, in another world it seemed. Eriskay comes from the Old Norse for “Eric’s Island” – who was this mysterious Eric?? I keep meaning to find out but have yet to…. It certainly does feel like the land that time forgot, but in the very best of ways. The scenery is exquisite and the unhurried way of life seems untroubled by modern-day pressures.
My contact at the Eriskay Pony Society had told me where the ponies were likely to be at this time of year and so we set off, map in hand to try and find them. Well, these beautiful souls did lead us rather a merry dance! Because of the unseasonably warm weather they had taken themselves higher and higher into the hills. In actual fact, if they had gone much higher they would have been totally inaccessible to us. Luckily, we did manage to catch up with a herd but our little troupe of explorers were rather weary and bedraggled by the time we did! But oh but what a treat it was. These predominantly grey ponies are strong, hardy and very friendly. Although these were a semi-feral herd (brought down to the lowlands for monitoring and essential veterinary care in the winter) they were very friendly and we felt so privileged to be able to get within feet of them. In fact, the Eriskay, descendants of the original native Celtic and Norse ponies of the Western Isles of Scotland, are known for their love of human company. I managed to get some stunning shots, like this pony standing on a cliff with the crystal-clear waters of the Hebridean sea as a backdrop.
When we reluctantly left the ponies we made our rather weary way back to the harbour. It was an amazing walk though. Now that we were not so focused on trying to find the ponies we could look around and appreciate what a wonderfully colourful island Eriskay is. We were certainly lucky in that the glorious sunshine heightened the vibrant greens and characteristic Hebridean blue of the sea. We stumbled across (almost literally) a bird of prey’s nest made out of the stones and small rocks that litter the hillside.
Whilst we were on the island we decided to cross the causeway to neighbouring South Uist island and, would you believe it, after trekking all over Eriskay to find some ponies, we found a small herd grazing right by the causeway. What a treat to get another close-up experience – twice in one day.
It saddens me to think that these delightful, characterful ponies are classed as critical by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. This means that there are less than 300 of these ponies in the world – shocking isn’t it? Hopefully their future will be brighter than it appears. In the 1970s they were a breed that was rapidly heading to extinction, with only 20 mares and one stallion in the world. Conservationists have done a sterling job bringing this breed back from the brink. Here’s hoping that in another generation’s time they will no longer be classed as a rare breed at all.
I hope you have enjoyed hearing about my adventures with the Eriskay ponies. I will keep you posted on the progress of Wild Hearts but in the meantime, Happy Horsing around!
Love Esther X