Fell Ponies at Gowbarrow Park
by Libby Robinson
As a long-time owner and breeder of fell ponies I am fascinated by their long history in the north west of England and by the role they have today in conservation grazing and regenerative farming.
The origins of the fell ponies go back into the mists of time but the breed has altered little over the centuries. Throughout history “they have always been there”, our native pony, playing a key role in commerce and industry, farming and mining. They are strong, even-tempered and sure-footed, bred on the fells by local farmers whose breeding herds would roam on hefted grounds like their flocks of sheep. They have the great balance needed by pack ponies to walk the rocky drovers’ roads, used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to carry northern produce to other parts of the British Isles. Fell ponies were also the main power on the farm used for all types of land work as well as road transport. They were also renowned as fast trotters so a feature at shepherds’ meets and at other Lakeland gatherings where races were held.
Since March 2020 some of my fell ponies have been grazing at Gowbarrow Hall Farm as an integral part of the Lloyd family’s commitment to Regenerative Farming. The ponies make excellent conservation grazers because they feed differently from cows, using their front teeth to cut off the vegetation and their strong back teeth to grind it well before swallowing. Unlike other grazers, horses have just one stomach and large intestines so they must eat whilst on the move. This means that seeds spread in their dung are dispersed over a large area.
Fell ponies also eat species such as gorse and thistles that would not be eaten by cattle or sheep. In the spring, when thistles are just starting to grow, the ponies will dig them up with their hoofs and eat root and all.
As a fell pony breeder, I was interested to find out more about Gowbarrow’s fell pony history so I turned to the National Pony Society’s Stud Book for “All Breeds of Mountains and Moorlands”. The Stud Book, which goes back to 1898, lists the names of all registered foals.
In addition to its name, each foal has a prefix that identifies the Stud where it was born. Breeders usually name their Studs after their location.
The Gowbarrow prefix first appears in the Stud Book in the early 1900s when John Swinburn of Gowbarrow Hall was registering some of his ponies with the Gowbarrow prefix. In 1906 he bred a stallion called General Pride which was described at the time as a perfect model of the breed. The Stallion’s Stud Card, which can be seen at the Dalemain Countryside Museum, describes him as the finest trotting stallion in existence at the time. Gowbarrow also boasted impressive mares. Gowbarrow Gem was thirty-three years old when she gave birth to her twenty-seventh live foal, and Gowbarrow Jess was over thirty years old when she stopped breeding.
The Swinburns of Gowbarrow Hall carried on breeding into the mid 1920’s and some of their ponies were used to start the Ullswater ponies at Knotts Farm Watermilllock-on-Ullswater in 1931.
During the war years the National Trust was registering fell ponies bred at Gowbarrow from a small herd donated by Mr. Charlton from his Linnel stud near Hexham. This helped ensure pure-bred foals were born at a time when cross-breeding with bigger breeds for farm work was encouraged by the war office. After the war, the National Trust offered the ponies to the Fell Pony Society. The Gowbarrow breeding mares were absorbed into the Dalemain herd and others dispersed to family homes.
I am really pleased that there are now fell ponies back at Gowbarrow and that their role in conservation grazing and regenerative farming is being recognised and celebrated.
by Libby Robinson
Fell Pony Heritage Trust