The Verderers weekly reports of animal casualties on the Forest roads always make such grim reading. Each entry states the day, date, time, the animal involved – pony, cow, sheep, pig or donkey – and what happen to that animal. Ponies represent the greatest number among the free-roaming animals killed or injured on Forest roads. Last year (2012) 51 ponies were killed and 13 were injured. The majority of these accidents occurred at night and the motorcar was the main vehicle involved (motorcycles were involved in two incidents and a tractor one). Just over 50% of the incidents involved local drivers. Shockingly there were 23 incidents that went unreported, which are commonly known as ‘hit and runs’. In each of these incidents an animal was wounded or killed by a driver who did not alert the authorities or try to secure attention to it. There is a reward of £1000 for information leading to the successful prosecution of drivers convicted of a hit and run accident involving a Forest animal. (Wildlife, such as deer, are also involved in road traffic accidents but because they are not owned by the Commoners they come under the jurisdiction of the Forestry Commission, so do not appear on the Verderers reports.)
The sight of wild ponies, and other animals, wandering throughout the Forest is one of its many attractions to the millions of tourists who visit each year. The ponies are highly adaptive and have learned to exploit their environment. But their canny knack of finding sustenance and shelter can bring them directly into harms way. The car parks and roads, for example, can be such a lure for ponies and cattle. In the wintertime when the roads are icy they are gritted to prevent drivers skidding or sliding on the frozen tarmac. But the grit contains large quantities of salt that the ponies and cattle will come and lick from the roads. Their quest for minerals brings groups of them directly into the path of on-coming traffic. Likewise on cold days the animals will often lie on the roads if the sun has warmed the tarmac sufficiently. The tarmac becomes one long radiator that enables them to take advantage of the additional warmth.
Whilst I am sure that the majority of people who travel through the Forest are aware that ponies, cattle, sheep, pigs and donkeys roam freely. I’m not sure that many of them realise that, whilst familiar with road traffic, these animals have absolutely no road sense. Over millions of years their intelligence has developed only to focus on finding food, shelter, mates and avoiding the danger of predators. Motor vehicles are not considered a danger by the ponies and other free-roaming animals because they are not predators. Quite the reverse in a pony’s’ mind. Cars bring people, people bring food, therefore cars are good.
One of the biggest dangers for the ponies are the people who feed them in the car parks or throw food from their vehicles onto the verges. This is not just a phenomenon that happens in the summer time, when people are happy to share their picnic leftovers. It happens all year round. Recently I was travelling on the B3079, between Homy Ridge and Howen Bottom, and my attention was turned towards a group of ponies fighting. They were rearing up and lashing out at one another. Someone had dumped a large quantity of apples on the track at the gateway and the ponies were furiously squabbling over them. The little group were completely oblivious to the traffic passing nearby, as all their concentration was on obtaining a share of the fruit. Encouraging the ponies into the car parks or beside the roads for food only brings them closer to the traffic and increases their risk of being killed or injured.
The B3079 is a road with the reputation of having the worse animal fatality rate, particularly between Fordingbridge and Cadnam. There is much debate currently about the efficacy of the reflective signs along its route and how to improve road safety for the free-roaming animals. The Commoners Defence Association, Hampshire Country Council, the National Park Authority and others spend a great deal of time trying to raise awareness among visitors, commuters and other road users about the number of accidents among the ponies and how to prevent them. Yet between 1%-2% of all Commoners stock continue to be killed each year on the Forest roads.