The Wild Ponies of Wales: Rugged, Resilient and Under Threat

The Welsh Carneddau mountain ponies have survived for hundreds of years, but their future is uncertain. Photographer Mary McCartney set out to capture the essence of the ponies in their natural environment.

By Oli Reed
photographs by Mary McCartney
Published 30 Sept 2018, 21:04 BST
The toughest and most resilient groups of Welsh Carneddau mountain ponies occupy higher altitudes, where winter ...
The toughest and most resilient groups of Welsh Carneddau mountain ponies occupy higher altitudes, where winter temperatures can plunge to well below freezing.
Photograph by Mary McCartney

This month's guest editor, Mary McCartney, grew up riding horses on a remote farm in Scotland. Her recent book, The White Horse, provided the inspiration for her trip to photograph the hardy wild ponies of the Carneddau mountains.

To understand the resilience of these ponies, you must first understand the landscape they call home. The Carneddau mountains in Snowdonia National Park cover thousands of acres, with some peaks soaring more than 3,000 feet. Rainfall is heavy, winds are high, winter temperatures are bitterly cold, and people are scarce.

“The ponies are as wild as the hills,” says Gareth Wyn Jones, a local farmer whose ancestors have managed them for 370 years.

Each herd has a matriarch that is believed to be more influential than the group’s stallion. Thousands of these wild ponies once roamed the mountains of Snowdonia, but only about 220 remain.
Photograph by Mary McCartney

The ponies are said to have survived a planned cull by Henry VIII, who decreed that any horse or pony not fit to carry soldiers should be destroyed. Fortunately, the harsh terrain and unforgiving elements of the Carneddau deterred his henchmen.

Carneddau ponies are gathered annually for health checks by local farmers, who clip their tails before returning them to the mountains. Ponies with long tails are elusive and have never been rounded up.
Photograph by Mary McCartney

One of the biggest threats the ponies face is the North Wales climate. In March 2013 a winter snowstorm killed over 100 ponies, wiping out half of their population.

“It was a natural cull,” says Jones. “The strongest survived, and the weakest were picked off.”

That natural selection is part of the valuable role the ponies play in the local ecosystem. Their bodies are left on the hills, providing carrion for birds and foxes, each death supporting new life.

Welsh Carneddau mountain ponies live in herds including about 15 mares and one stallion. The exact number of ponies in a herd reflects the size of the area it occupies and the strength of its stallion.
Photograph by Mary McCartney

The turbulent political landscape, however, has brought a new challenge. Proposed agricultural funding cuts by the Welsh government could bring an end to the centuries of protection hill farmers such as Jones have provided to the ponies. Their existence has always been based on the survival of the fittest, but this may be a battle they cannot win.

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