The Big Picture

The 2018 Annual Gathering of the Carneddau Ponies

IMG_4696-1Picture this. An early Sunday morning in November on the Carneddau Mountains and a small convoy of assorted vehicles heads up into the clouds. This vast coastal area is mostly inhabited by sheep, and features bogs, boulders, ditches, deep ravines, and rough tracks. Celtic standing stones and burial mounds are scattered across remote hillsides, amid miles and miles of undulating heather and gorse. When the sea fog creeps in with the tide, visibility can be reduced from poor to, well… zero.

The mission: to find in the region of 200 Carneddau ponies and shepherd them down to a single hill farm at the top of Llanfairfechan. Mission impossible?

The bleak, often cruel beauty of the Carneddau is a double-edged sword because the land here has supported these ponies since Celtic times, with little human interference. And although they’ve likely had connections to the more well-known Welsh Mountain Pony variants somewhere in their past, the Carneddau have been scientifically proven to have the most inexplainable DNA – a kind of unique, indestructible set of genes which sets them apart from not only other domestic ponies, but from other wild native breeds as well. And one has to appreciate that the kinder, more temperate habitats of our native Exmoor, Dartmoor, and New Forest ponies are also controlled and managed more selectively, whereas the Carneddau are isolated in all senses of the word. These ponies shape the land, and the land shapes them…

IMG_3246Dr Carol Hughes (director of a life-science company based in Wales together with Sharon Smith) explains, “The Carneddau ponies are an important part of an integrated and ancient self-regulating ecosystem.”

In essence, the Carneddau ponies are a product of pure wildness…

45359008_1977224559028511_3745455930175651840_n-1Susanne Shultz (Senior Research Fellow at Manchester University) has spent many years studying the herds and logging their movements, understanding their social groupings, taking samples and analysing their lives to an astonishing level of detail. One item which did stand out was that the ponies’ social groups were paramount in maintaining health, especially as they aged – and this was a big factor in underpinning their physical fitness. Ponies (and people) with good social interactions generally enjoy a better quality of life. Of course, there will always be some individuals who fall by the wayside or just prefer to be loners, as evident in our own social structure. Interestingly, stress levels in the ponies during the gathering were not especially high – the levels only rose when the ponies were returned to the hills and endeavoured to re-establish their social groups.

Susanne goes so far as to suggest that this wild gene pool might be introduced to strengthen the breeding lines of domestic ponies who’ve fallen foul of various commercial and domestic traps such as sustained inbreeding. Small, domestic ponies are often prone to laminitis and a whole list of other ailments which clearly don’t affect the Carneddau ponies. Occasionally there are ponies on the hills with skeletal abnormalities and defects such as locking stifles, something which may have crept in due to the breed being watered down by the dumping of domestic horses on the mountains, or simply it’s the weaker ones falling foul of the brutal climate – or a combination of unfortunate circumstances. What is clear is that in order to protect their natural selection process (i.e. their breeding and social grouping) questions have to asked about our level of interference, because their way has seen them adapt to survive on this land for centuries. Essentially, these ponies enjoy a freedom denied to the majority of equines.

IMG_4278Standing in the mist-wreathed landscape, boots slowly sinking into a wet mattress of heather, the noise of the wind and the rumble of a distant quad broken only by the occasional whinny, was slightly eerie. And the ponies are well camouflaged; the colours of bracken and stone, rainclouds and earth. Occasionally we’d glimpse a small herd, moving easily across the landscape in a seamless line. The high-stepping speed with which they cover the ground is challenging for the following drivers, often risking life and limb over the unforgiving terrain.

An entirely voluntary exercise, the annual gathering is deeply rooted in Welsh tradition and reaches back several generations to a time when entire villages were involved – either on foot, or on horseback. A time when communities pulled together to ensure that the future of these herds were protected and managed to the best of their abilities. But these are modern times and although lots of people have strong opinions about the ponies, sadly, few people are interested enough to offer time and practical help. Given the depleted manpower available it’s doubtful the gatherings could continue without the use of quads, scramblers, and 4X4 vehicles. Helpers prepared to walk, line-out across the hills forming a human barrier to deter the ponies from chasing back uphill; while the vehicles traverse the Carneddau, circling as far as Tal Y Fan and out towards Conwy, driving the ponies down towards Llanfairfechan. 

IMG_4737Today, the same seven local farming families who continue to graze sheep on the Carneddau, retain the rights of guardianship as the Carneddau Pony Society. Gareth Wyn Jones, spokesman for the society, owns just 7 of these ponies while his uncle and father (still incredibly active on the farm at the age of 82) lay claim to around 80. After some five hours, around 150 ponies moved in a long, colourful caterpillar along the single-track lane to Tyn Llwyfan. An emotive sight; some cautious, some bold, some distinctly flighty, many of them vocal! The ponies were segregated into ownership groups – no mean feat. The individual families then make decisions as to which colts and young stallions need to be held off the mountain, along with the old and sick – on this occasion watched over in an advisory capacity by veterinary surgeon, Ellie Salisbury. Obviously, there are no predators on the Carneddau and so numbers need to be managed in order to allow the available grazing to support the existing ponies, and the resident sheep.

The vast majority of the ponies removed at these yearly gatherings are re-homed; thanks to various successful schemes working with the society such as conservation grazing – headed-up by Hilary Keyhoe (PONT coordinator and North Wales Regional Development Officer),or simply as companions to solo horses on private yards. The society even received a request for a matching pair of colts to be brought on as driving ponies, and many more have been taken on for rehoming and rehabilitating by Jackie Williams (Bryn Gaseg, Anglesey).

At times it seems a thankless task, managing 200 wild ponies which are worth nothing in monetary terms, and it’s a job which can occasionally attract negative press. Essentially, the Carneddau Pony Society is up against a balancing act between conservation issues, the rigours of a farming livelihood, and those who are perhaps misunderstanding of the ethos. But one has to look objectively at the roots of life on the Carneddau in order to appreciate the most effective way to co-exist, and it’s clear how much can be achieved if ideas, opinions, and resources are pooled. Looking at the big picture is an essential part of survival and exists at the heart of every successful community – both human, and equine.

A Welsh Safari

The Carneddau Ponies of Snowdonia.

The summit of Drum, a small peak nestled in the Carneddau range of Snowdonia, North Wales, can be an inhospitable, dangerous place. On day two of the annual pony-gathering a heavy shroud of fog obscured the dense landmass to within a few feet. Someone once said, ‘It’s the centuries of men’s hands on the stones that puts the heart into a place.’ The beating heart of the Carneddau for me, has to be the wild ponies, and they were the reason I found myself on top of a bleak mountain in the Welsh hills in November, 2014. The ponies of the Carneddau have access to some 27,000 acres, and there are less than 200 of them out there… somewhere. Ancestors would likely have used dogs and followed on horseback but sadly, modern times dictated the use of quad bikes and scramblers.

The rest of us walked, across a vast mattress of sodden heather. Within the hour though, the sun pierced through the fog and it dispersed like skeins of gossamer, revealing the full majesty of the Welsh hills and the Irish Sea. This dramatic landscape marches towards the foothills of Snowdon in one direction, and in the other falls in a crumpled stone-hewn scree to the west coast. It is both magical, and awe-inspiring. Add into this mix the sound of drumming hooves and you can feel the beating heart of this place match your own. Too whimsical? Probably, but the sight of these spirited ponies galloping across the heather, manes and tails flying; is a hugely emotional sight. 

The romance and beauty of the Welsh hills is well documented, but some of the hill farmers are struggling to find definition in an increasingly faster, more cosmopolitan world. Despite this, there are 350 years of family history behind their passion for the hills, the ponies and their way of life. Scattered across these hillsides the remains of farming settlements, Roman forts and the slate industry epitomize the hardships, the triumphs and the disasters – but this history is part of our roots and part of what defines us. I love the honesty of this way of life, but like millions of other people feel powerless to nurture it when something fails to protect those issues which are out of our control. In the past – and we have to acknowledge our farmers have been through desperate times – the ponies have been collected off the mountain and herded into meat wagons.

Now though, I read somewhere that these ponies fetch less than a fiver at market. If something doesn’t bring financial reward, the worth of it is compromised – which is perhaps a sign of our times. And it’s disappointing that there’s a red tape fight over DNA proof to achieve rare-breed status – and therefore some protection – for this unique bloodline of Welsh Mountain ponies, a pure line which is specific to the Carneddau. I feel justified to feel both whimsical and passionate about the ponies fate and concerned for the welfare of these animals, left to survive on their own wits through sometimes intolerable winter conditions. And although it is this very hardiness which makes them what they are, I do find it sad that the larger welfare and equine bodies don’t recognise a need to support and sustain this breed by at least maintaining and documenting the bloodlines.

For the uninformed, the native Welsh Mountain pony is a larger, more elegant version of the Shetland. The Shetland was epitomized by Thelwell – short legs, profuse mane and tail and as stubborn as they were fiery, depending on mood and opportunity. The seven Mountain and Moorland ponies of Great Britain were considered to be the hardy ground stock of children’s riding ponies the world over and crossed with larger, finer breeds to produce, well, anything you wished for. Emotional bonds have a value of their own which is difficult to define. I’ve been around horses for 50 years – although, coming from a working-class background where money was tight, I wasn’t born into a situation which easily accommodated them. Every Saturday, I would cycle fifteen miles with my father to have a riding lesson on a Welsh Mountain pony called Merrylegs. In the early sixties we were taught to stay on by clamping a threepenny-bit between our knees and the saddle. If it was still there after an hour, we got to keep it. Thankfully, gripping-on is no longer considered good practice! Ironic too, that the three-penny bit is extinct.

North Wales pathAs a child around ponies, I learnt how everything was connected by a purpose and why even small things should be respected, because there’s a reason they are there. (Sharing this landscape with several thousand head of sheep impacts on the benefits of cross-grazing, the ponies eat the vegetation the sheep won’t and vice-versa, the parasites which develop in sheep are inhibited by the ponies and vice-versa.) I learnt how to give and take, I learnt that physical knocks or disabilities were not a barrier to success. My friend at the time – at age ten – had one-and-a-bit-arms. One side of the reins would be up round an amputated stump, but she was a more effective rider than I.

I learnt respect and humility, and all those invisible things we maybe cannot quantify or explain, but we know are there. But above all, I learnt to love the hills. 

WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY  by Jan Ruth

Aerial footage of the 2014 gathering: http://vimeo.com/112336601