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Masked pony drifts this autumn!

Entertaining AND useful information about pony drifts and pannage in the New Forest by Mark and Hugh

Mark and Hugh signoff 600x400Ed note: For your enjoyment we've just republished this lovely article by our erstwhile writer and cartoonist duo Mark and Hugh, who a couple of years ago set out to consider some of the unique autumnal traditions in the New Forest. Traditions which are of course annual...and timeless.

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Do you get my drift?

The next time you are driving in the New Forest and you find yourself delayed in a queue of traffic, you’ll have a fair idea of the cause. Granted, there are the occasional roadworks and the odd breakdown but deep down you’ll be expecting to see something four-legged and furry wandering, seemingly aimlessly, along the road ahead. Well I say aimlessly, that’s probably not true, these so-called dumb animals survive perfectly well all on their own. They have no need of Tesco Express, broadband or cavity insulation. They just get on with life throughout the seasons seemingly unaffected by frosts or heatwaves. Apparently, we humans are equally resilient, (with our central heating systems and duck-down quilts) but ask us to sleep out in the forest for just one night, without a tent, and by morning we’d be jibbering shivering wrecks. The pony delaying your passage is probably on its way to better grazing; they know about these things. This is where they live. The pony isn’t walking in your road. You’re driving in its back yard.

I think that the majority of us living in or around the New Forest might have heard of the term ‘the drift’. This is the time of year that the New Forest Agisters organise the round up of all the ponies. There are just five Agisters, one being the Head Agister. The commoners pay for their stock to roam the forest and, in return, the Agisters who are paid employees, take care of the stock. This is a business, not some kind of theme park. The drift normally takes place during August to November and involves driving the ponies into one of several pounds across the forest where they are given a good look over.

When you think about it, it’s just a really big farm

I think this heading sums up the Forest from a commoner’s point of view. For many of the seven hundred or so commoners this is indeed, their farm. There are around six thousand cattle, about the same number of ponies and around three hundred donkeys that all eat, sleep, live and breathe in the Forest. The ponies can be described as semi-feral in that they are wild, but at the same time they are cared for and this is what the drift is all about. They are brought together for the benefit of the owners and, once their condition has been assessed, they are released back into their world. A world of fern, bracken, gorse, woods and ponds. A world of cold, starry pitch-black nights with a soundtrack of owls and nightjars. Hot dry days and the mewing of buzzards.  I doubt any of us will ever come as close to nature as these semi-wild animals. How could we? We eat our food from plastic packets, fill our ears with the scream and shout of media then sleep inside our stuffy boxes. We couldn’t be more removed from nature.

For us the appeal of the New Forest might be our favourite view or walk; Rhinefield or Hatchet pond perhaps. For we visitors the forest is a place of leisure, relaxation and reflection, a time to put our feet up. For the commoners it’s a place of sanctuary for their beloved ponies.

Who’s your Daddy?

Ponies are branded with their owner’s mark. One commoner might have a single pony, another a great many. Cattle are marked with an ear tag as per the normal national regulations but in addition there is another unique ear tag which identifies the local owner. Pigs are also ear tagged. The Agisters, who are the people in the front line as it were, oversee all of this and unsurprisingly they are rather busy.  Typically, there are thirty-five to forty drifts each year but, thanks to the dreaded lurgy, we are down to twenty-two this season; that’s still a lot of riding.

Side or centre parting Sir?

Once the Agisters and commoners have driven the ponies into the pound, they employ a neat little trick in order that they don’t waste their energy on driving the same pony twice. Before being released a simple but easily recognisable pattern is cut into the tail, a combination of step cuts on one side or the other and sometimes the base of the tail. Each of the five agisters has their own area and their own pattern. The tail will fully regrow in a year and for those of us who are mostly unaware of forest practices we can enjoy a simple game of spot the tail. As we drive across the forest, if we see a tail which appears to be untouched then we know that the commoners haven’t rounded up this particular beast, yet. However, if we see a rather neater tail, we know that for this particular pony, the process has been completed. An expert could tell the area that the pony belonged in, how smart is that? On a personal note I am about as unfamiliar with the equine world as a man could ever be.

Madam, would you mind stepping back from the stampede please?

Access to the drifts by the general public is forbidden and for very good reason. A group of wild ponies running at full tilt is a dangerous force easily capable of maiming or killing a human. Personally, I have never witnessed a drift but those who have tell me that it is a thrilling sight. The Agisters would like people to be reminded that when they are riding at full speed, driving ponies towards the pound, they are not little misfits playing at cowboys, far from it. They are doing a job of work, work that is dangerous. Those involved have suffered injuries including broken bones. This is serious stuff. There is simple advice for those who suddenly find themselves in the middle of these hectic proceedings. First, stand still. If there is a tree or bush, get behind it. But if there is nothing, stand still, the ponies will generally find their way around you. In addition, if you are a dog owner and you see running ponies, you must put your dog on a lead. In my experience dogs cannot resist a chase and, knowing the power of a kick from a large animal like a pony, it could very well be your dog’s last chase of all.

Has Sir considered the acorns? They’re fresh in today.

Another term you might be familiar with is pannage. This is the period during which pigs, owned by commoners, are allowed into the forest to eat acorns. Commoners are entitled to the ‘Common of Mast’ which allows them to release their pigs out into the forest to feed on beech mast, crab apples and of course, acorns. This year it started on the 14th of September and it generally runs for sixty days. If ponies consume too many acorns, they can become ill and sometimes die. Pigs however thrive on them making pannage a benefit to both pigs and ponies. On a side note the pigs have two or more rings through the snout, a little like the trendy teenagers of today. So attractive don’t you think? The reason for this is to prevent the pig from driving its snout deep into the forest floor, or lawns, and making a mess of things, or perhaps a pig’s ear of them? When I lived in France, I saw at first hand the damage that can be caused by wild boar rooting for food. These are powerful animals.

If you see something awry, please say.

A final plea from the Agisters. If you see a foal laying down, it could either be having a little nap or it could be injured and, after all, how are we non-equine types supposed to know? I have been assured that the Agisters would rather have a false alarm than no call at all.

Road traffic accidents involving Forest animals should be reported immediately to the Police by dialling 999 (emergency) or 101 (non-emergency).

If you find a sick, injured or distressed pony, cow, donkey, pig or sheep, contact the Verderers’ Office on 023 8028 2052 (Monday-Friday 9am-5pm), or the Forestry Commission on 0300 067 4600 (24 hours).

If you find a sick, injured or distressed deer, contact the Forestry Commission on 0300 067 4600 (24 hours).

Enjoy the Forest but please be aware of the drifts.

Thanks to Jonathan Garrelli, Head of Agisters, for his time.

 New Forest pony drift cartoon by Hugh Lohan

More tales and cartoons for Lymington and the New Forest from Mark and Hugh

Meanwhile, if you'd like to read previous articles on diverse subjects written by Mark and illustrated by Hugh's cartoons here they are, click the links embedded in the titles:

A journey from the New Forest via Lymington
The brilliance - and persistence - of Marconi

Equality in the skies
Bees pollinators par excellence 
Cordless home entertainment

The joy of sheds

When the Isle of Wight was just Wight
Bucklers Hard

Salisbury Cathedral 
Pond Life in our Forests 
Bombs Away 
Baileys Hard 
Rufus Stone and Sir Walter Tyrrell
Graffiti through the ages
Freedom of the roads
Heath fires
Lymington Lido
Watch the birdie
Unstoppable momentum of nature
Socially distanced socialising
Calshot Spit, a curse for mariners...

 

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