The Fell Pony Museum: Free-Roaming Herds
The Fell Pony Museum
Free-roaming Herds :: Fells on the Fells

Free-Roaming Herds -- Wild Fell Ponies?

Two old mares on Loupsfell, Greenholme

There are no Fells that are truly "wild" in the sense of "belonging to no-one". Every pony is owned by someone, though they may be running semi wild on hundreds of acres of common land. The local farms that have "fell rights" give their owners commoners' rights to turn-out ponies on the fell. These hill bred ponies form a hardy nucleus that maintains the type of the ideal Fell pony.

Older Data about Hill-Going Herds: 18th C

There may not be any data extant from previous centuries that can tell us precisely how many people ran ponies on the commons, even when fell rights were recorded nationally in the 20th C. However Pringle's remark in 1794 that "a few ponies of the Scotch breed are reared upon the commons, but the practice not being general, need not be dilated upon" (see Galloways page 1), and Tuke's reference to "a few Scotch Galloways" on high moorlands in West Yorkshire both strongly suggest that not many farms were running ponies on the commons even at the end of the 18th C. As is still the case, the number of rights determined how many Fell ponies were actually allowed on the high commons, and it would seem that has never been a very large number.

Reducing Stocking Numbers on the Fell Commons: 20th C

However, on some fell commons the Ministry of Agriculture (now DEFRA) compensated farmers for every pony removed and not replaced on the common land. This, along with reduced numbers of sheep and cattle on the fell, was intended to allow natural regeneration of damaged herbage.

Foot and Mouth devastated much of Cumbria's sheep stock in 2001 and the change in the grassland was accelerated. The fell land looked startlingly different in 2002 - not bowling-green lawns, but waving stands of flowering grasses and thistles. Visitors in that year could not believe how lush everything was, and that Fell ponies are adapted to a normally much sparser diet!

How many "Hill-Going" herds are there in the 21st C?

In the 21st C we hear worries that the fell-going herds are being lost. At the time of writing (June 2021) there are 22 herds that qualify as "hill bred" in England as a whole, according to the Fell Pony Society, with about 320 mares in total. Two of those are new herds using rights on fell commons in east Cumbria though one large herd is about to disperse (due to the owner's ill health, not to legislation or disputes with any Government organisations). This will take the likely totals at the end of 2021 down to 21 herds and fewer than 300 mares.

Old Remarks about Stud Books and their effect on Breeding

"Now, it is just this breeding true to type [of the General Stud Book for the Thoroughbred horse] which one is apt NOT to get in other breeds, unless it be with the mountain and moorland ponies aforesaid, which, left to run in a semi-wild state and breed according to natural selection, seem to retain their type from generation to generation." Adye, 1903 ed.

Books about Fell ponies, which all portray their life on the fell:

Hoofprints in Eden, 2005 (Millard: Hayloft publishing) reprinted by Jackdaw E Books

A Walk on the Wild Side, 2008 (Morland: Hayloft publishing)

Spirit of the Fell Pony, 2008 (Hallam: Halsgrove publishing, available from Fell Pony Society)

All three are available from the Fell Pony Society's Merchandise page


Return ^ to top of page

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