Shaun Barr Tells The Story of Cumbria's Fell Ponies
Fell Ponies - A Cumbrian Story
For thousands of years native fell ponies have been as much a part of the Cumbrian landscape as the very mountains they call home. Cumbrian-based photographer and freelance writer Shaun Barr takes a look at why this rare breed deserves much more of our attention.
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In Search Of Cumbria's Fell Ponies
It’s dawn on a chilly February morning with a biting north-easterly wind blasting across the snow-covered fellside.
I’m just to the west of Tebay, standing on a hillside where one of the remaining herds of Cumbrian native fell ponies still roam free. My mission is to photograph them in the snow.
I had hoped to find the fell ponies easily in the all-white surroundings which should have rendered them more conspicuous than usual, but I soon discover more than a little disappointedly that they are not where I expected them to be.
But the landscape is just stunning. The usual contours and definitions of the fells that stretch out to every horizon are now smoothed out under a heavy blanket of recently fallen snow and beautiful soft curves and shapes spread out in all directions. Today, the fells look extraordinarily spectacular.
I decide to head east in the direction of Borrowdale and climb steeply to gain a broader view of the landscape around me. The dawn light suddenly weakens and snow starts to fall once again.
As visibility deteriorates I begin to get the feeling that today I just might not see them. I pause every few minutes both to scan the greyed out skyline, and to take a breather on this tough uphill climb, squinting as the snow hits my face. Then suddenly, away in the distance, I can suddenly see a number of dark hunched figures and, as always at first sight of them, my heart skips a beat as I finally begin to see some of the herd.
There’s a thrilling beauty to watching horses wander freely across the landscape all year round, it’s a landscape they are very much a part of, indeed shaped, covering miles of ground in all weathers just as their ancestors did.
Native to the north of England, and Cumbria in particular, fell ponies are one of the hardiest breeds in the country and their history goes back a very long way.
Although their earliest origins are not clear, it's thought they go as far back as prehistoric times. It's believed that the Romans worked with them, possibly after their introduction of Fresian horses. The Vikings are thought to have first used them domestically for ploughing, replacing their oxen.
Although the fell ponies were kept on the farms and lived in the villages, the breeding stock always stayed on the fells, ensuring that those hardy qualities the fell ponies have become so well known for were preserved through the generations that followed.
As with many other horse breeds, the fell pony's fitness and strength was often used in local industries and these horses would often transport local goods such as wool, food, and iron ore along fell tracks, their sure-footedness a significant advantage on those steep mountain sides, which were often treacherous in wet and icy weather.
They would also form packhorse trains carrying goods the length of the country. As the decades rolled on the fell ponies would be used delivering both milk and mail to surrounding farms and villages. In the north east of England they were worked in the mines as pit ponies.
But it’s only in very recent decades that the valuable role of rare breeds such as fell ponies for work has emerged again. They are being successfully used as part of conservation efforts to better manage grasslands, helping to increase biodiversity.
Brought off the fell just twice a year, in late spring and early summer, the semi-wild ponies have minimal contact with their owners and roam wild and free for the rest of the year.
Physically, fell ponies are well-built, stocky and stand at around under 14 hands. Most are black, some are dark brown with an additional lighter tone; there are only one or two grey mares in this particular herd and that is quite typical of the breed.
Their manes are especially long, and it’s often to difficult to see either eye, which can sometimes be challenging when it comes to photographing them!
Although strong, they are a gentle breed with a steady temperament and in all my visits they’ve never been less than charming.
I’ve photographed fairly large herds of Koniks where keeping your wits about you is vital at all times. Sporadic skirmishes between harems would often break out without any warning.
Here on the Cumbrian slopes though things are usually much calmer and life appears to be lived at a slower, gentler pace.
Today they are moving particularly very little, conserving energy to keep warm. For what seems like hours at a time they stand motionless, their flanks white with frozen snow.
Every so often they once again forage for the grasses buried beneath; to them this is just another winter’s day and they are seemingly untroubled by it.
In contrast I shudder after standing still for more than a few minutes and I feel the wind bite through my numerous layers of clothing. I have more than enough pictures for one day and I should begin to head back now.
But, and this always happens, I feel a reluctance to leave the ponies, I just enjoy being in their presence - even on a day like today. Especially on a day like today.
I don't think I've seen the head looking more beautiful: stalwarts standing up against all that the Cumbrian uplands in winter can throw at them. And they look magnificent .
Beyond admiration for their grace and beauty, I feel a real, palpable sense of calm when I'm with them. It could be argued of course that it's simply down to the wild beauty around me: I'm surrounded by stunning scenery at every turn and to a certain extent that must contribute to the overall sense of peace. But it's only in the presence of the fell ponies that there is a distinct 'letting go'.
Perhaps it's simply because the fell ponies are so absorbing to watch that everything falls away for a time. But then I've photographed lots of other wildlife and as thrilling and absorbing as it is, I've never experienced the very striking sense of calm that I get when spending time with the horses. So whatever that may be, there is something extraordinarily captivating about these endearing, enchanting semi-wild horses that makes spending time with them a privilege from which I never grow tired.
I finally drag myself away, turning back a few times to see them stood motionless, still watching me leave, and I am already planning my return.
As I look back a final time I’m heartened to see a little blue sky break through the clouds and I can see their black coats shimmer in the brief appearance of some wintry sunshine.
Words and photography, Shaun Barr.
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