Cumbria’s Fell Ponies

by Jane Firth

As you walk the Ullswater Way, you may be lucky enough to come across some of Cumbria’s fell ponies. They were once widely used as working ponies, taking wool to market, pulling ploughs and working in the mines but there are now only about 6500 fell ponies left worldwide and they are classified as ‘vulnerable’ by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.  You may spot them high up on the fells above Ullswater where they are being used for ‘conservation grazing’ because they eat and trample in very different ways from sheep.

The ancestor of the Cumbrian Fell pony (and the Dales pony) is believed to be the now-extinct Galloway. They are thought to have originated on the England/Scotland border before the Romans arrived.

The Vikings used Fell ponies to plough, pull sledges, as pack animals and to ride. The working animals were kept in the villages and the breeding stock lived up on the fells.

From the 11th Century, fell ponies were used to carry fleeces, woollen goods, cheese, meat preserves and metal ores long distances. By the 13th Century this practice had evolved into pack trains, with the front pony wearing bells so that the others could follow it in poor weather. In the winter of 1492-3, when fine wool was one of Britains largest exports, 11 Kendal traders made 14 journeys to Southampton carrying cloth. These pack pony trains continued into the 20th Century. 

Fell Ponies were used as pit ponies where seams were deep enough. They were also used above ground in collieries for moving machinery. They transported copper, iron and lead ores from mines to smelting work in the north west and they carried iron and lead long distances across the north of England to Newcastle and returned with coal.

The ponies also carried dairy products from the farms above the pits into towns. Even after the arrival of canals and railways pack ponies remained essential for reaching remote communities. They were used to deliver mail to rural areas and are still used for carrying grouse panniers and stags down from the moors.

Today, Fell Ponies are being used again as driving ponies. They have a great deal of stamina and are very sure-footed, even on rough or marshy ground. Most recently, they have started to be used to carry footpath repair equipment to remote areas of the Lake District. Fix the Fells, a charity whose rangers and volunteers maintain the Lake District trails, have used them to carry fleeces to a high trail in the Langdales. Here the wool will be placed on a boggy area before trail materials are  laid on top so the trail will float on the bog rather than sinking in to it. See a video about the project here.

Fell ponies are usually a very dark brown or black with only very small amounts of white, such as a star on their forehead. However, every so often you see white (grey) ones. We know that the Cistercian monks at Furness Abbey traditionally rode white ponies. When Furness abbey fell victim to the dissolution of the monasteries in 1537, the ponies were released to the wild and merged with the wild Cumbrian Fell ponies. It is thought that this explains the grey fell ponies we see in the Lakes today. There are some on the fells above Aira Force.

Fell ponies are increasingly valued for their role in conservation grazing on the fells. They help increase biodiversity, for example by controlling the spread of gorse and trampling the area to create open ground where seeds can germinate. 

However, there is concern that fell ponies may lose their ability to survive year-round on the fells if future Stewardship Schemes result in them being removed from the fells for a number of months each winter. Foals born and raised on the fells are hardy enough to survive the Lake District winters and, like Herdwick sheep, they become hefted to their home area, learning the terrain from their mothers.  There are worries that these traits will be lost if the ponies have to be brought off the fells each winter.

The Fell Pony has been a part of the Ullswater Valley’s history since Roman times.  They have helped shape our landscape and been an integral part of our cultural heritage, invaluable in the past for transporting both agricultural produce and mined materials. Today their role has changed, being increasingly valued for outdoor sports such as riding and trekking and recognised as important agents in conservation grazing of the fells. 

When you next see a fell pony, why not take a moment to remember their rich cultural heritage and the role they have played in shaping our landscape.

All photographs by Jane Firth

For more information

Fell Pony Heritage Trust www.fpht.co.uk

Rare Breeds Survival Trust https://www.rbst.org.uk/fell-pony