The Fell Pony Museum: 21st Century
The Fell Pony Museum
The 21st Century :: Grazing Rights :: The Fell Pony Society :: The FPS Display Team :: In the Media :: 21stC Herds :: Genetics

21st C Herds

The numbers of registered Fell ponies are healthy, and registrations of foals have been rising (Stud Book entries 2015 – 2019).

There are estimated to be approximately 6,500 Fell ponies world-wide, mainly in the British Isles but also in the United States of America, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, Russia, Czech Republic, Australia, and New Zealand.

Hill herds and their breeders

The Fell Pony Society’s definition of a fell-going "hill" breeder is recorded in Council Minutes: “The following definition was agreed. To have ‘rights on common land to graze and be an active grazier.’” (July 2018)

There were 19 stud prefixes on the 2018 list of active graziers, and the 2021 list stood at 22 (down to 21 at the end of the year) with approximately 320 mares in hill-going herds (likely down to ~300 at the end of the year). Numbers of foals born to UK hill herds have also been increasing (2015-2019 figures reported by the Chairman in the FPS Magazine, Autumn 2020), although, of course, these herds only form a small percentage of the total world-wide.

Hardiness and Type

The nucleus of hill bred ponies is important because the challenges of hill life maintain the hardiness and the typical qualities of the breed. The environment determines how the ponies' genes are expressed, and these influences continue through several generations. Lowland breeders have traditionally returned every few generations to buy-in stock that have lived on the high land, and recent research has shown that this practice is not arbitrary - it is rooted in practical understanding of how "epigenetic" influences work.


In biology, the term epigenetics refers to changes in phenotype (appearance) or gene expression which are caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence, hence the name epi - (Greek: over; above) - genetics. These changes may remain through cell divisions for the remainder of the cell's life and may also last for multiple generations. There is no change in the underlying DNA sequence of the organism, but non-genetic factors, such as harsh environmental conditions, cause the organism's genes to behave (or "express themselves") differently. This effect may persist into subsequent generations born from that individual, and it explains both the known phenomenon of hill-bred mares producing typical hill-bred foals, and the lowland breeders' need to return to the fell herds for stock every so often.

Encounters with Fell ponies on the Fells: How to behave

Many hectares of "wilderness" in Cumbria and Lancashire carry Fell ponies (see the Grazing Rights page). Fell ponies are also used as conservation grazers on a short-term basis on areas of botanical interest and to support insect and bird populations. Where these areas are also open access under the Rights of Way Act, you may encounter free-roaming ponies. Be responsible.

Please don't encourage them to come to you or approach your car. In particular, don't entice them with food. Although it may be thrilling to have ponies come to take treats from you, if the next family to come along doesn't offer such treats they may find themselves the centre of a fight between large, disappointed, grumpy animals using hooves and teeth as weapons.

If ponies come too close despite your self-restraint, point a walking pole or stick at them; a firm prod in the chest will hold them at a distance. Don't hit them, of course!

Also, please don't chase them, and don't let your dog chase them. Be warned, a few horses will try to kill dogs running loose around them. Keep yours under control and you won't have a problem.

So leave the ponies alone and admire them from a distance, for your own safety!



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Last updated 5 July, 2021 .
Copyright © since 2000 The Fell Pony and Countryside Museums.

5 July, 2021