With the warmer weather and longer days upon us more visitors are coming to the New Forest to enjoy its scenic beauty, tranquil atmosphere, wildlife and, of course, the free-roaming ponies. The ponies, quite rightly, have been given the title of ‘Architects of the Forest’ because their grazing and browsing patterns (and even their dung) has a significant influence on the growth, absence and occurrence of many plant species. This subsequently affects the number and diversity of insects, birds and other animals that depend upon the habitats created by the New Forest ponies.
The arrival of ‘Doctor Green’
At this time of year many of the ponies will be looking rather thin, which is a result of living in the ‘wild’ over the winter months, and visitors should not be unduly concerned by their condition. There are mechanisms in place to ensure that ponies do not starve or that animals in really poor condition are given proper care. The oncoming flush of spring growth should ensure that the arrival of ‘Doctor Green’ can provide a much-needed tonic to counteract the deprivations of their winter diet.
The importance of furze
During the cold season nature’s bounty is much declined. Generally speaking the grasses and other forms of forage lose their nutritional value from September to March each year. The ponies take advantage of the heather, holly and gorse bushes to maintain them through the winter. Gorse (Ulex europaeus), for example, is related to the domestic pea or bean family and, if conditions are right, will provide adequate nutrition to keep the ponies ticking over until the arrival of spring. The ponies carefully browse the tips of the prickly bushes to nibble on the tender shoots. The Old English name for gorse is ‘Furze’ and around the New Forest you will find many place names or businesses that have furze in the title, including the RHS Chelsea 2012 show garden GOLD award winners, Furzey Gardens. Proof of just how import this shrub is to the ecology and economy of the New Forest.
Body condition scores
At every Verderer’s Court, which is open to the public, the Senior Agister gives a report on the health and welfare of Forest livestock and also the work that his team are doing to ensure that the well being of the free-roaming animals is being maintained. The Agisters use the score system recommended by DEFRA, and endorsed by the National Equine Welfare Council, when determining the condition of a particular animal. The scores run from 5 (very fat) to 0 (very poor). Whilst it is probably not possible, or indeed favourable, to achieve a score of 5, a more realistic target is between 3-4. Animals with lower scores are dealt with at the discretion of the Agisters and variables, such as time of year, weather conditions and vegetation growth are influential factors in deciding the outcome of each case. However, anyone concerned by seeing an animal in particularly poor condition should contact the Verderers’ office in Lyndhurst as soon as possible, during normal opening hours, so that the animal can be inspected and assessed by an Agister.
Body condition scores recommened by DEFRA
To contact the Verderers’ office please call 02380 282052, during normal office hours. If you are phoning to report an animal in poor condition please include a detail description of the animal(s) concerned, and the precise location where they were seen, as vague descriptions and imprecise details of locations are almost impossible to follow up.