Fell ponies in blood
A familys love of the native Cumbrian pony – the Fell – has
ensured that important bloodlines of this ancient breed
have not been lost. Jeremy Hunt reports
THE full majesty of the Lake Districts most famous peaks spread far into the distance, below is Keswick and the beautiful Derwentwater. What more perfect picture could there be to frame Cumbrias native pony – the Fell.
On the lower pastures of Rakefoot Farm this scene provides a stunning backdrop to some of Glenis Cockbains Fell ponies as she moves among them just as her family has done for three generations.
Her grandfather, Edwin James Wilson, bred Fell ponies and her father is Eddie Wilson, owner of the renowned Townend stud.
Its a "people pedigree" that has ensured the valuable bloodlines of this ancient breed will never be lost – and they look like being cherished for a fourth generation too.
Mrs Cockbain, whose husband Will runs 800 Swaledale ewes at Rakefoot Farm with help from teenage sons John and James, admits she was "never a girl for dolls."
"I can remember being bought a dolls pram. I never put the dolls in it, I just used it to carry hay out to my fathers ponies," she recalls.
Fell ponies – strong-bodied and often strong-willed, with well-timbered limbs, large, round feathered feet and that characteristic heavy mane and forelock – fascinated Mrs Cockbain from her childhood days at the family home at the bottom of Carrock Fell.
* Surprise sales
But it came as a surprise when, as a young girl, her father decided to sell his ponies to raise cash to buy the farms first tractor. Only one filly was kept. "Shed been hit by a car and had a damaged fetlock so she stayed at home."
This pony, Townend Polly 6th, maintained a vital link with the breed and, after some persuasion from his daughter, Mr Wilson bought back one of his brood mares at 16-years- old. These two provided the foundation of an even stronger family commitment to Fell ponies.
The Townend stud continues to thrive at Haltcliffe, Cumbria. Now in his 70s, Mr Wilson breeds several foals each year and works closely with his daughters Carrock stud at Rakefoot Farm.
The Fell pony is categorised as critical on the Rare Breeds Survival Trusts list. To make matters worse fell ponies have been hit by a mystery AIDS-type virus which is claiming the lives of an increasing number of foals.
And Mrs Cockbains stud has been a victim: "Last year we had one of the best filly foals I can ever remember, she really was something special. But at three weeks old she suddenly began to scour."
Despite every effort from vets and even a faith healer, the foal had to be put down. "Its a virus that attacks the immune system. There are all sorts of theories but no one has come up with a real explanation."
Mrs Cockbain enjoys showing – which takes the place of annual holidays – and thinks nothing of an eight-hour round-trip. Many of the rosettes that bedeck the farmhouse kitchen wall were won by the successful mare Carrock Pollyanna. Now the showing mantle has been taken up by the younger generation including the impressive young mare Townend Dawn 2nd.
Carrock ponies are shown in-hand and under-saddle. Ellen Reekie, who works at the NFU office in Penrith, acts as "show jockey" these days and has enjoyed great success.
There are about 500 Fell pony breeding mares in the UK and around 300 foals are registered each year. The hardy ponies at Rakefoot Farm remain outside all winter growing a thick coat. At times they graze land up to 1550ft.
"Breeding a good Fell pony is like building a house. You need a sound foundation, a good round foot, nice flat bone, not round, well set-back joints and good straight action and plenty of nice, silky feather.
"No foot, no horse. A lot of these old sayings are very relevant," says Mrs Cockbain.
Shes a great ambassador for Fells as riding ponies.
"They are very comfortable and make you feel safe. They will go all day and I used to hunt regularly with the Cumberland Farmers on a Fell stallion."
Mrs Cockbains other great equine interest is Dales ponies, another breed whose future is being closely monitored by the RBST.
Standing proudly in the yard, neck arched, ears erect is her top winning black mare Highhouse Tilly. Bought as a foal for £220 from renowned breeder and Cumbria farmer Sarge Noble, the 14.2hh Tilly exudes the breeds power and strength which she combines with a style and presence that is so typical of the Dales breed.
Tilly achieved a dream come true when she qualified for the ridden mountain and moorland championship at last years Horse of the Year Show at Olympia where she finished sixth out of 30.
"They are a wonderful breed. I can remember the spring we broke her in as a three year old. A walker told us there was a sick lamb on the fell, the men were hay-timing so I saddled her up and rode off to find it.
"It was a big lamb but I lifted it and laid it on to her shoulders in front of the saddle, mounted and rode back to the farm. She never flinched. That says a lot about a newly broken-in pony."
While the quad bike in the yard at Rakefoot is a symbol of changing times, it is reassuring to know that the future of the sure-footed fell pony is in safe hands.