Visitors to the New Forest have been slammed for hurling abuse at park rangers carrying out a 1000-year-old tradition of rounding up wild ponies for welfare checks.
Cyclists and other visitors are being accused of putting themselves and others in danger by interfering with the ancient practice by ignoring warning signs and spooking ponies during the annual custom.
For almost 1,000 years, wild ponies in the historic New Forest are rounded up each autumn for annual health checks in a custom known as ‘the drift’.
The practice is an essential part of maintaining the forest, ensuring the welfare of the ponies and dates back to the time of William the Conqueror.
But organisers have hit out at cyclists this year for their antisocial behaviour, claiming some have sworn at park rangers telling them to stay away as the roundup is carried out by the Agisters, the group responsible for caring for the 6,000 ponies that roam the national park.
The beauty of the New Forest is at risk of being destroyed by visitors who do not respect it, the group says.
Visitors to the New Forest have been slammed for hurling abuse at park rangers carrying out a 1000-year-old tradition of rounding up wild ponies for welfare checks known as ‘the drift’
Cyclists have been accused of hurling abuse at park rangers trying to carry out annual welfare checks on the New Forest’s 4,500 ponies as part of an ancient annual tradition (stock image)
Head Agister, Jonathan Gerrelli said that as the forest attracts increased visitors, it is having a big impact on his team’s ability to properly look after the horses.
He added: ‘During the round up, we are getting more and more issues with people getting in the way and putting themselves in danger and us in danger.
‘By ignoring signs telling them the cycle route is closed, some cyclists are getting in the way as you are gathering up herds of galloping ponies.
‘It is dangerous and spooks the horses away from the designated route so we cannot catch them.
‘The forest is a working forest – people look at it as a bit of playground and it is certainly not that.’
Some cyclists even shouted and swore at rangers for telling them that certain routes were closed and had an attitude of being able to go where they like, Mr Girelli said.
Head Agister, Jonathan Gerrelli said that as the forest attracts increased visitors, it is having a big impact on his team’s ability to properly look after the horses during the annual custom
The Drift: An ancient custom which dates back to the days of William the Conqueror
The Drift is an annual tradition that is carried out in many areas of the country that have wild or semi-feral stock. It is an essential part of the management of the stock to maintain the health and welfare of the animals.
Every year, at the onset of autumn, the guardians of the New Forest go out into all the different parts of its ancient woodland and round up the 4,500 ponies which live and run wild here.
Since every one of them actually belongs to someone, each must be identified and inspected before it can return to the forest for the winter.
In the New Forest, the Agisters, who between them cover the entire area, constantly monitor the animals to make sure they are fit and healthy.
Any animal looking poor may be taken off the forest at any time throughout the year and it is then the owner’s responsibility to take it back to their smallholding.
More than 30 drifts happen in the Forest each year with a small area covered at a time.
This helps the Commoners, who are the owners of the ponies, to be able to check the animals brought in to their own location and also to help each other.
He added that mountain bikers were the biggest problem because they do not even stick to cycle routes and they cannot put signs warning people of the horse round up all over the forest.
He said: ‘Although it is great for visitors to come down and enjoy it, they have got to respect it so we would ask people to take great care and obey instructions.
‘They don’t mean to do it – it is just ignorance of country ways and the countryside. People need to be more respectful and think a bit more of their actions.
‘It is a constant pressure with the volume of people coming into the forest which is threatening the very thing they are coming to see.’
The issue first emerged in a report to the Verderers’ Court – an elected group responsible for the protection and conservation of the national park – which noted problems with cyclists and walkers.
Damage to fencing in the forest was also raised as a problem – with Agisters complaining they had lost half the ponies they had intended to catch on a recent drift due to a lack of fencing.
Mr Gerrelli explained the importance of the round ups and said: ‘The drift is very much an ancient tradition.
‘The act of the animals going out grazing is what has made the New Forest what it is today – they have very much shaped the forest.
‘You would not have the lovely grassy lawns or the open heathland without the grazing animals. You would just have woodland and scrubland.
‘There is hardly anywhere else in the country where you have large numbers of grazing animals turned out all year round onto thousands of acres of open land so it is a unique area.’
The people of the New Forest have been rounding up their horses since before it was officially created in 1079 by King William.
The drift is seen as an essential part of managing the herd of ponies in the forest.
Throughout the Autumn, there are around 40 round ups in which often more than 200 horses are gathered up for health checks.
They are also fitted with reflective collars in order to decrease the amount of road accidents.