A walker, unsuspecting, freezes mid-stride as a herd of ponies thunders past. They are shortly followed by a gaggle of shouting farmers atop quad bikes—the usual peace and calm of the hills momentarily shattered.
The annual Carneddau pony gather in North Wales is a centuries-old tradition, now sporting a modern twist. Horseback has been replaced by horsepower with squadrons of quad bikes racing across steep slopes of grass, gorse and heather attempting to corral the ponies into a holding pen from which they can be brought down from the mountain. The aim of the gather is to check the health of the ponies and control their numbers by removing some male foals (called colts) and any ponies unlikely to survive the winter to be rehomed.
“The Carneddau ponies have been running up here since the Celtic times,” said Gareth Wyn Jones, Chairman of the Carneddau Pony Society and a well-known Welsh hill farmer. “They are very unique, there’s only 220 breeding mares left in the world, and they run up on the mountain here.”
The ponies roam free throughout the year over the 200 square kilometres of the Carneddau mountains and plateau. It’s the highest contiguous area of high ground in Wales and England, with seven peaks that break 3,000 feet (914 meters) above sea level. It makes up roughly 10% of Snowdonia National Park.
Today’s task is to gather all the ponies from the slopes above the village of Llanfairfechan. It’s challenging terrain with bogs, rocks and hidden drops all waiting to surprise any riders not 100% focused on the job in hand.
A risky ritual
Personal responsibility and a can-do attitude are still the order of the day on these wild Welsh mountains, a situation that would no doubt have any health and safety officer tutting fiercely.
Jones is a one-man whirlwind, directing the action with enthusiastic roars, marshaling order from the apparent chaos. He sends only the most experienced riders to the more challenging terrain, but accidents are still a very real possibility. A couple of years ago, an experienced rider punctured their lung after rolling his quad resulting in a swift helicopter ride to the hospital.
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The gather is a community affair with teams of volunteers arranged across the hillside ready to funnel the ponies into the holding area as the quads chase them in. The ponies, however, have not received the memo, and at the last minute the herd wheels down the slope and away from the waiting line. Much cursing and sprinting ensues and Jones, lunch interrupted, sets off—sandwich still in hand—to put on an impressive display of one-handed quadmanship.
To be a breed or not
Of all the semi-feral pony populations in the U.K., the unassuming Carneddau ponies are arguably the closest to being truly wild—but are perhaps also the least well known and least celebrated. The Exmoor ponies, by contrast, are front and centre in the marketing materials for Exmoor National Park; there are Exmoor Wildlife Safaris to visit them, an Exmoor Pony Centre and even an Exmoor Pony Festival.
Part of the reason for the Carneddau ponies’ relative obscurity is that, despite research from Wales's Aberystwyth University showing that the Carneddau ponies are a genetically distinct population, they’re not officially recognized as their own breed. In British agriculture, being a recognized breed, especially a rare breed like the Exmoor pony, is the ticket to higher subsidies, additional funding, better sale prices and increased marketing power.
Without breed status, apart from a small amount of funding the Carneddau Pony Society receives towards the ponies’ upkeep as conservation grazers, their economic value is practically non-existent. Somewhat ironically, it’s the factors that prevent the Carneddau ponies from being classified as their own breed that make them so unique.
To be an official breed the Carneddau ponies would need a studbook that records the lineage of each pony. The free roaming Carneddau ponies, however, choose who they mate with on the mountain. This means that, short of prohibitively expensive DNA testing, it would be all but impossible to create an accurate studbook for them.
Breed societies also define the breed characteristics—the shape of the head, color of the coat, the size of the ears. Once defined, breeders start selecting for these traits creating an ever more extreme caricature of the breed until the original is all but lost. As is often seen in pedigree dogs, this practice brings with it health problems, and the same is true for pedigree ponies. Without the lure of high prices, the farmers who own Carneddau ponies have avoided the temptation to ‘improve’ them by selecting for certain characteristics.
“It’s survival of the fittest up there, and if you don’t make it there’s a reason for that,” says Jones. “It’s always the best genes and the best DNA that make it… and that’s why they’ve survived.” (Who decides the freedom of America's wild horses?)
With a management approach so different to most domesticated ponies and horses, the Carneddau farmers do come under fire on social media from those who view their treatment, or lack thereof, as cruel.
“It’s not easy to listen to criticism from a small minority,” says Jones. “But that’s life, we’ve just got to get on with it and make sure we’re doing the right thing for the ponies.”
The value in wild
The ponies’ presence in the mountains has shaped and defined the landscape of the Carneddau. By grazing in a different way to the sheep they share the mountain with, the ponies have prevented plants such as bracken, rushes and gorse from becoming dominant and outcompeting other species. With no veterinary treatment, the ponies’ manure is truly organic and the worms it fosters are an important food source for the red-billed choughs that flit amongst the peaks.
The topic of what the British mountains should look like is a contentious one. For some, the Carneddau is an overgrazed ecological desert with excessive numbers of sheep and ponies preventing the natural regeneration of scrub and woodland. For others, the Carneddau is a mosaic of montane heath and grassland that strikes the right balance between ensuring that the land remains agriculturally productive—albeit marginally—and maximising biodiversity.
Whichever vision of the Carneddau mountain’s future wins the day, the ponies will have an important role to play, but their value goes far beyond that as merely conservation grazers.
“The Carneddau ponies have very low levels of intervention, so they’re as close to wild as you’re going to get,” says Suzanne Shultz, Professor of Evolutionary Ecology and Conservation at The University of Manchester, who has been studying the Carneddau ponies since 2007.
Amongst most other semi-feral pony populations there is some form of management taking place, be that selective breeding, contraceptives, worming or supplemental feeding during winter—all of which affect the ponies’ behavior and biology. Apart from the removal of colts and those too weak to survive the winter, the Carneddau ponies are left to their own devices. The ponies’ unique situation, where they are allowed to behave like a wild population yet are easily accessible, makes them a valuable scientific resource.
Ask Shultz about the Carneddau ponies and the mountains they roam, and her effervescent passion is clear to see. In the course of her research, she has uncovered a surprisingly complex and long-lasting web of social relationships amongst the ponies.
“Some of the ponies have maintained their social groups for 15 years,” says Shultz. “The basic composition of the groups has changed very little, and I would not have expected that.”
Shultz’s research into the ponies’ social behavior and how they interact with their environment offers important insights that can help with the conservation of other more exotic species she works with. These extend to wild equines such as the Cape Mountain Zebra in South Africa, and may also improve our understanding of how to manage domestic horses.
One area Shultz and her colleagues were keen to understand was what caused the ponies stress by analysing the hormones in their faeces. At first glance, being herded off the mountain by quad bikes and penned in a field would seem to be a very stressful event. As it turns out, the gather is not what really stresses ponies out, neither are harsh winter conditions. What really stresses the ponies are unstable social relationships—when young stallions come in to disrupt an established herd or when they are released back onto the mountain after the gather and a period of social reshuffling occurs.
“With captive horses we’re basically applying lots of little acute stress events throughout their lives by moving them in and out of different social groups, by the way we house them in isolation which is very different to the lifestyle of the wild ancestors of today’s horses,” Shultz said.
She hopes her research can help lead to more sympathetic management of domesticated horses. And, after some initial scepticism, these and other insights offered by Shultz and her colleagues have convinced Jones and his fellow farmers of the importance of their research, and its further implications, for the ponies.
“If we want to secure [the ponies] future then we have to bring science into it,” he said. “It’s the way forward for us to have the DNA to prove they are one of the oldest breeds in the UK, and that’s a major thing to say and do.”
Around 9,000 years ago, wild horses all but disappear from the U.K.’s archaeological records. They then reappear in the form of ponies domesticated by the Celts around 4,000 years ago. The historical record between then and now is somewhat incomplete, but it is quite likely that the ponies have roamed free on these hills practically unchanged since the Iron Age. This is a claim few other pony herds can make, and if it can be proved, that would be a major boost to the Carneddau ponies’ status.
After a frantic morning, Jones and his team have 170 ponies gathered and ready to descend. There’s a moment of calm while they regroup, then the gate is opened, and the ponies are off down the lane to the farm. I’m also gathered, by a grinning and mud spattered Siôr Jones, Gareth’s son, and hop on the back of his ATV to join a cavalcade of quads and bikes heading down behind the ponies.
The ponies are taken to a gently sloping field at Ty’n Llwyfan farm, the Jones’ family home where they have farmed for the last 375 years. Save for the occasional burst of activity caused by a young stallion chancing his luck with another’s mare, the ponies calm quickly, perhaps remembering this short-lived imposition from previous years.
There are seven farming families with rights to graze ponies on the common land on the Carneddau; each families’ herd will be separated off to be taken back to their home farm where they will be health checked and have their tails clipped to show they have been gathered this year. With so much ground to cover, there are more than a few wily ponies still roaming the hills whose long tails flaunt their ability to evade capture.
Generations of farming families take part in the sorting, wading through the assembled herd, occasionally pausing to confer over a particular mare or foal. “Never mind them, this is what you want a picture of,” quips Rol Jones, Gareth’s father, with a wry smile. “I’m the oldest farmer on this mountain.”
At 86, Jones senior still stands straight backed and bright eyed; just as for the ponies, it takes a certain degree of toughness to make it up here as a farmer. Suddenly, there is a flurry of action as a families’ ponies are identified and split off from the rest. It’s a timeless scene with a deep sense of place—one that feels as if it could just as easily be on the Mongolian steppe as the mountains of North Wales.
“As time has gone on, I’ve realised that the true value of the ponies is their embeddedness in the landscape,” said Shultz. “It’s a really important part of who those ponies are and their intrinsic value.”
The sense of connectedness between the ponies, the farmers and these mountains is perhaps something more felt than seen. The Welsh have a word ‘cynefin’ which perhaps best captures it. Cynefin has no direct English translation. But it encapsulates a deep personal connection to place—and a sense of belonging to that environment.
“These ponies are a true example of Welsh living history,” says Gareth Wyn Jones. “We’re just custodians for the short time of our life span to make sure that they are here for future generations to enjoy.”