New era begins for Kerry bog pony

THE little Kerry bog pony, which has itself been saved from extinction, is now doing its bit to aid the survival of some bird species.

The Irish Wildbird Conservancy has purchased several geldings to graze down its reserves.

Unlike cattle and sheep, the hardy ponies are picky feeders and leave tufts of grass and ungrazed areas, said to be ideal for nesting birds.

A campaign to save the bog pony — often compared to the Shetland breed — was launched in the early 1990s by Kerryman John Mulvihill. In 2006 the pony was confirmed as the third, distinct Irish equine breed, along with the Irish draught horse and the Connemara pony.

There was an unprecedented level of reaction to a column we recently devoted to the Irish draught and to a show highlighting the qualities of that noble animal — the farmer’s greatest servant, in days long gone.

Hard to believe there are so many people interested in horses and ponies of every size, shape and breed. Similar to the bog pony, enthusiasts such as members of the Irish Draught Horse Society are ensuring the survival of breeds that might otherwise take the same road to oblivion as the hapless dodo.

Stephen O’Sullivan sends word that the attendance at the draught horse day in the Green Glens Arena, Millstreet, Co Cork, exceeded all expectations and the event could now become a regular date on the equine calendar.

“This was a day when people from all over Ireland and abroad left the doom and gloom behind and stepped back to a simpler time.

“The Irish draught can be a recession beater, and why shouldn’t it be? This is a horse that saw our ancestors through tougher times than this,” he writes.

“For many, the day brought memories flooding back, provoked by sounds and smells of a horse being hot shod, or the sight of the old trucks on display, or by just being around the horses of their youth again.

“It was great to see so many families, and as you moved through the crowd you heard stories of great horses and great bloodlines, of days spent ploughing, or saving hay, or at the bog with relatives and neighbours, and nobody minded if you stopped and listened. But to our delight the day was also full of talk of the future and the thought that this event would mark the beginning of a new era for the Irish draught horse,” says O’Sullivan.

It seems the bog pony is also in for an era of renewal. Mary McGrath, from Kildare, a breeder of both bog ponies and Irish draughts, says a meaningful role needs to be found to preserve the ponies in their place of origin and elsewhere.

As well as a new role mentioned at the outset, she believes they have a definite part to play in ecotourism. With an easy temperament, they are lovely with children, and also have the potential for a craft industry to be built around them, such as the making of carts, gigs and harness.

This year it is hoped to have a bog pony demonstration at the Horse Show, in the RDS. Nor would they be daunted by the prospects of entering the famous arena. You mightn’t think it but these ponies can jump extremely well and are clever at negotiating obstacles that may seem impossible to clear.

All of which probably goes back to their breeding and the fact that their ancestors had to work in difficult terrain. “Many are just one generation away from the mountains and bogs,” says McGrath.

The term “passionate” is often over-used, though certainly not in the case of the aforementioned John Mulvihill whose operations are based at the Red Fox Inn, near Glenbeigh, on the Ring of Kerry.

He is president of the Kerry Bog Pony Society and has a long family association with the breed. His grandfather, Con Mulvihill, told him stories of the ponies working on the bogs, while his father ran a turf yard in Limerick, using the ponies to deliver the turf around the city.

In the early 1990’s John found a stallion in Glencar and bred two foals before the pony died. John set up a stud farm, as a result of which a network of bog pony enthusiasts and breeders has been established and the breed is now thriving, with upwards of 300 in the country.

Since undertaking the project John has produced the official Kerry bog pony passport, carrying all the vital information about the breed and its links to Irish peatlands.

The breed has been given the official seal of approval by the Irish Equine Centre following blood and DNA testing.

The aim of the society now is to come up with a national conservation policy to preserve the genetic resource of the breed.

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