Scotland's equine 'giant panda' facing an uncertain future

By Elizabeth McQuillan

Bonnie Prince Charlie's Beach on Eriskay. <em>Picture: Kenny Davidson</em>
Bonnie Prince Charlie's Beach on Eriskay. Picture: Kenny Davidson
Rarer than the giant panda, there is a little-known breed of Scottish pony that is facing an uncertain future. Recently published statistics from the Rare Breeds Survival Trust place the Eriskay pony as “critical”, with less than 300 breeding females left worldwide. If something isn’t done soon, then this piece of living breathing history could be lost forever.

The Eriskay pony has had a symbiotic relationship with the crofters in the Western Isles of Scotland for generations, being as integral to the crofters’ lives as the sea and the land that sustained them. Previously there were several isolated Western Isle breeds including a Barra pony, but these are all now extinct. They lightened the burden for those living in the Islands, carrying heavy peat and seaweed in the basketwork creels slung across their backs as well as harrowing, pulling carts and taking the children to school.

Sometimes termed “backdoor ponies”, they lived closely with their crofting families. Since the women and children had to do much of the work on the land while the men were at sea, the ponies needed to be docile and easy to handle. So they were selectively bred for calm, hardy and amenable characteristics. Over centuries this has led to a most biddable breed that seems to actually embrace the company of humans. It is said by some Islanders however, that the pony can understand nothing other than Gaelic.

With the appearance of roads, the decline of the population in the islands and mechanised farming practices, the numbers of ponies began to dwindle in the 20th century. On Eriskay in the early 1970s they found there were just 20 remaining ponies. It was the insight, intervention and dedication of a handful locals then that saved the breed from extinction.

It is thought that the modern Eriskay pony is a very ancient breed, incorporating Celtic and Norse bloodlines. Arguably it could be called the original native Scottish pony, and our own Highland pony is quite likely the result of these native ponies being cross-bred to produce bigger animals. One study by veterinary surgeon Robert Beck involved measuring the proportions of the ponies depicted on Pictish standing stones around Scotland and comparing them to those of the Eriskay pony. He found that the proportions matched exactly, with the modern Eriskay pony having proportions that differ enough from that of other equines for this to be significant.

Rather more scientific DNA research is currently underway, with the Mountain and Moorland Pony Genetic Analysis Project being carried out by Texas A&M University and the University of Saskatchewan. Nigel McWilliam, chairman of the Eriskay Pony Society (EPS), explains the work is important as it, “aims to establish the genetic profile of the 33 breeds in the survey, the genetic health of the breeds and the relationships between the breeds. This project will fill an existing gap in our knowledge of the Eriskay by not only developing a genetic profile, but by providing Information on the genetic origins we currently lack.”

An Eriskay pony. <em>Picture: eriskaypony.com</em>
An Eriskay pony. Picture: eriskaypony.com
While this may give us more genetic information in the near future, what is currently being done to secure the future of the Eriskay pony? Mary McGillivray, breeding advisor with the EPS, recognises that owners need to be given guidance, help and encouraged to breed from their mares when appropriate but believes that the “charm of the pony itself that will hopefully make the difference, with those that come across the breed being completely taken with its incredibly affable temperament.”

The difficulty is that most owners do not wish to, or plan to, breed from their pony. For those who do have an interest in breeding, there needs to be a public demand for the breed in the first instance for the process to be viable.

Thankfully, the Eriskay pony of today is gradually making headway in a modern world. No longer required to graft, the pony has the potential to be a contender in the competitive equestrian forum. Strong hindquarters give it a powerful jump, by nature it is hardy and brave and the historical ‘backdoor pony’ mentality makes the pony a great companion to have around. Lacking the ‘hot’ blood introduced to many other pony breeds, it offers an incredibly safe and steady mount for children, and these traits could make the breed an appealing proposition for many parents.

Despite being an important part of our heritage, and one that could easily disappear, the future of this rare pony will undoubtedly lie with achieving greater popularity and success in this niche. With no definitive measures in place to increase the population we can only hope that public demand for this unassuming Scottish native pony, when the word gets out, will ultimately secure that future.

EriskayPony.com
Scotland’s Native Horse – its history, breeding and survival, by Robert Beck