Fells on the fells

Black mare Heltondale Dainty, suckling her foal by the fell gate at Murthwaite

An article first printed in "Going Native" magazine 1994 © Susan Millard

Breeding

The Fell pony which you are most likely to meet in the course of a walk across open country is a mare with foal at foot. She is probably in foal again. The mares are "gathered" off the fell just before foaling, in May. Some breeders do not gather until after foaling. The men will have travelled up to the tops by Land Rover or four wheeler motorbike; on some fells they will then walk until they have the ponies moving safely in the right direction, downhill towards the fell gate. Some mares are very afraid of motorbikes because non-horsey farmers use them to chase the ponies off feed meant for sheep.

(Heltondale Dainty and foal at Murthwaite, belonging to Thomas Capstick; photo courtesy of Thomas Capstick.)

The heavy mares are kept "in-bye" to foal and then either pastured with the stallion or walked to him for service in-hand. In late July or early August they and their foals return to the fell where they are undisturbed until the autumn gathering for the sales at Hawes, Kirkby Stephen, Penrith or Wigton. Then the colt foals (and sometimes the fillies) are weaned abruptly. Some of the older mares may be sold at this time and if a stallion has been in use in one area for more than four years it is likely to be in the autumn that he changes hands.

Group life

The groups of ponies which live on the fell vary from one area to another depending on the management practices of their owners. If all foals are sold every autumn, there will be just little groups of mares between September and May, with the addition of foals from May to September. If, however, the filly foals are retained, then the groups will be family based, with an elder mare in charge. She may have three years' progeny with her, if they all happened to be female. Some breeders keep all foals, allowing them to suckle right through the winter and not weaning them until the mare dries off naturally a month or so before foaling again. The gathering in late spring will separate the family - yearling fillies back onto the fell, yearling colts into a field or a building to await gelding, and mares to the stallion to be served as soon as they come into use after foaling. In this case, the groups on the fells consist of three or four mares with barren female progeny up to three years old and a few geldings of any age up to five or six, who may have been handled, broken to ride or drive and are waiting to be bought.

Murthwaite youngstock Most youngstock will be halter broken and taught to tie up, but again this depends on the owner. Some mares well on into their teens have never been haltered - just walked everywhere like cattle or sheep, in a little drove. (Photo taken at Murthwaite, courtesy of Barbara Müller.)

Registration

Not all the Fell ponies on the fell tops are registered. Some farmers do not bother with papers for their foals although the dams may be pedigree stock. Poor quality colts in particular may not be registered. Dealers from as far away as London will buy and sell Fell types without worrying about paperwork. Many of these are now going as driving ponies, so some of the poorer mares may be put to a piebald or hackney type stallion to command a readier sale for the offspring. This is a practice that has come and gone periodically alongside the breed and was carried to its extreme by Christopher "Kit" Wilson of Rigmaden, who bred the Wilson ponies that eventually became Hackney ponies. It is only to be frowned upon when a coloured or Hackney stallion is turned out to serve everyone's mares indiscriminately.

The Commoners' Associations do not allow stallions to run on common land, so theoretically a farm could turn out a mare and she would remain geld (barren). In practice, until quite recently, this has not been the case since not only were some stallions put out on the fell to serve any mares who "break" to service during the main covering period, but it is also possible even now on a big fell like the Howgills, for a mare to escape the gatherings and rear a colt to an age where he is capable of siring foals. Technically, a colt older than 2 years should not remain on the fell. (Photo courtesy of Barbara Muller.) bay colt foal

Travelling with intent

It appears a stallion can influence the behaviour of the ponies according to his temperament. On one fell the stallion herds his mares together as a single group; another is said to have a range on a northerly section of fell and one by one as the mares come into season they make their way to him so that in June and July they are all to be found in one place, whereas for the rest of the year they live in scattered small groups. The laid-back reputation of this stallion contrasts with the story of another entire, now departed, who was known to have travelled nine miles upwind to serve a mare, returning to his regular beat the following day. Where a stallion is allowed to live "at" the fell, it is usual to remove him to in-bye land during February, March and April. This prevents mares being served too early if they have slipped a foal over winter (or not conceived during the preceding year through being unfit to breed or not put to the stallion).

Foaling time

There is no urgency about producing foals on the fell. The grass grows late in spring, and May is quite early enough for a foal to be born if its dam is to have good enough grazing to make milk for it. Removing the stallion prevents foals arriving at an inappropriate time. (The effect of day-length on the mare's oestrus cycle is not certain enough to prevent conception, particularly in very young or very old mares whose hormones may be unpredictable.)

Condition

The other reason for removing the stallion from the fell during late winter is to let him put on condition on better going, to be in trim for the service season and to look his best for the stallion show which is held at Dalemain on the second Saturday in May. In the case of the majority of stallions, however, who never run on the fell at all, practices can vary from keeping him with his mares all year to only turning him in with them in June or July, or even in some cases using him in-hand only.

The Fell Pony Society has made provision for registration of foals born from artificial insemination techniques (apply first to the Society) but I don't think these have been used or will prove economic in Britain, so the Fell will be spared the indignities inflicted on other, more highly competitive breeds of horse. Currently the FPS does not recognise animals born from embryo transfer.

Overseas, however, these methods will sometimes be the only viable method of getting mares in foal. There, with export costs being taken into account, AI may be worth the trouble, the paperwork and the expense.