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Strong, and with a wonderful temperament, fell ponies are a distinct and much-loved breed with a rich history; a hardy inhabitant of the Cumbrian fells for centuries and a vital resource for farmers, traders and miners. Now classed as ‘vulnerable’ by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, with just 500-900 registered breeding females left.

The Vikings used ponies to plough and pull sledges, for riding and pack work. Working animals were kept in villages, while the breeding stock lived out on the fell. From the 11th and 12th centuries ponies were used for carrying loads of fleeces, woollen goods, and foods such as cheeses, meat, fish and preserves. They were used for shepherding and to hunt wolves that might attack the flocks.

As industry developed, ponies transported copper, iron and lead ores from mines to the smelting works, sometimes long distances to Newcastle, returning with coal. They were used in mining underground, for moving machinery and hauling dairy produce to town from the colliery farms overlying the pits.  Even when canals and railways came to dominate transport, pack-pony trains and pony-based postal services remained a lifeline for remote communities.

Today, you can still see semi-feral herds of fell ponies on the hills, with many employed in a variety of tasks including recreational riding, performing light forestry and farm work, carrying tourists on pony treks and transporting equipment to repair upland paths.

On our land at the Helm, fell ponies carry out valuable conservation grazing, controlling the spread of scrub and rank grasses. Grazing helps the area become more species rich as other plants and flowers have the chance to prosper rather than just one or two dominant species. The ponies eat gorse throughout the year, helping to control its spread.

Fell pony breeder Nicola Evans has seven of her ponies on our land at the Helm. Nicola, an ecologist and member of the Fell Pony Society, backs the ponies for riding, takes part in shows, events and displays . Other young ponies in the herd carry out conservation grazing on nature reserves around Cumbria.  

Nicola said: “I graze young ponies on the Helm as because food is so plentiful the mature ponies tend to put on too much weight here. They are bred to thrive on much rougher grazing.

“They share the Helm with young cattle but with the low stocking rate there is no competition for food or space so it’s a harmonious place for them all to grow up.