Farm Ireland

Friday 23 March 2018

Keeping it local for bog ponies

Tourism use being earmarked for Kerry's unique pony breed

Caitriona Murphy

Caitriona Murphy

I first wrote about the Kerry Bog Pony three years ago at the height of the Celtic Tiger boom, when builders were buying racehorses like it was going out of fashion and native breeds such as the Connemara and the Irish Draught were making phenomenal money in the sales rings.

At that time, the Kerry Bog Pony was enjoying a major revival, both in its native county and elsewhere. In fact, a six-month-old Kerry Bog Pony filly foal was sold at the annual show and sale in 2007 for €3,400 to a buyer from Columbus, Ohio, in the United States.

Just 180 Kerry Bog Ponies were registered with the Irish Horse Board at the time and the society's president, John Mulvihill, was determined to reinvigorate the breed.

Mr Mulvihill was credited with discovering and rescuing the breed from the threat of extinction -- the breed had dwindled to a population of only 20 in the early 1990s. Since then, the population has grown to include 279 breeding mares, 39 stallions and their progeny.

In 1997, the breed was assumed to have descended from another race of small ponies called Celdones, which were brought by the Celts from northwest Spain as military and trading links were established with Ireland, most particularly with the southwest of the country.

However, a new book, published this week by Associated Editions, shows how the Kerry Bog Pony is actually linked to ponies in Scandinavia.

Mary McGrath, co-author of Kerry Bog Pony, says the discovery of a genetic link between ponies in Scandinavia and Kerry caused an international stir.

"Dr John Flynn of Wetherbys has published a number of papers about the breed," she said.

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"It had been assumed that the Kerry Bog Pony was in some way related to the Connemaras, which have a Spanish link, but it turns out they are not related at all," she said. "So the question scientists wanted to answer was, what was the link between northwest Europe and the southwest of Ireland?

"There is now a hypothetical assumption that the Kerry Bog Pony originated from ponies that the Vikings brought with them to Ireland between the year 1,000 and 1,100," she added.

"We know that the Vikings brought ponies on open boats from Norway to Iceland and from Denmark to the islands where they lived. And we know that the Vikings settled in the area from Dingle to Valentia Island.

"If we can prove that the Vikings brought the ponies from Scandinavia to Kerry, it would make the Kerry Bog Pony the oldest established breed in Ireland."

The author's own interest in the breed stems from a keen fondness for all things rare and native -- she has already co-authored a book on the Irish Draught horse and is keen to start another that would encompass everything from Kerry, Moiled and Dexter cattle to the Burren goat and rare breeds of fowl.

Her Kerry Bog Pony book was published after two years of research in libraries, the Irish Folklore Commission in UCD, in the pony's native Kerry and anywhere she could find a mention of the pony in history.

Her research was funded by the Department of Agriculture's grant aid scheme for the conservation of genetic resources for food and agriculture.

An art conservationist by trade, Mary spends her days preserving and restoring works of art. After her current job at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, she is set to start another project at Dublin Castle.

At home in Kildare, her farm has been surveyed by staff from Teagasc Oakpark because of the diversity of grassland species it contains, and Mary dedicated a large part of the land to growing native species of trees.

The equestrian link came from her father, Joe McGrath, who owned Brownstown Stud on the edge of the Curragh.

"I grew up on a thoroughbred stud farm and we also had workhorses on the farm," she said.

"Daddy also drove a team of four Irish Draught horses for the Lord Mayor of Dublin. I once drove them down Grafton Street when my father broke his wrist.

"I felt like something out of Ben Hur.

"I also drove a team of ponies and Santa Claus one Christmas -- I must be the only woman in history to drive two teams down Grafton Street."

The McGrath family also had links with showjumping: Joe owned the famous horse Goodbye, ridden by Seamus Hayes to victory in the first ever Derby at Hickstead in 1961, victory in the RDS Puissance in 1965 and countless other achievements.

It was in 1998 that Mary first moved into Kerry Bog Ponies after buying two animals from Mr Mulvihill.

Today she has a herd of five Kerry Bog Ponies, including a stallion called Timothy Dan, three broodmares and one foal. They live at home with the Connemara ponies and Irish Draught horses that she also owns.

"Horses are an obsession," she laughed.

The author is also keen to promote the usefulness of the Kerry Bog Pony, as a practical way of keeping the breed alive.

"The breed is definitely still at risk," she said. "But, with careful breeding and the creation of a market for the geldings, we can ensure its survival.

"Like the Irish Draught, which is promoted by the Gardai riding Irish Draught geldings, we need to find a market for the Kerry Bog Pony geldings."

Her suggestion is to look towards Europe, where small ponies are used as pack animals on walking trails to carry rucksacks and children.

"We need to encourage this in Kerry, where there are already hundreds of tourists and dozens of walking trails," she said. "It would seem to be an obvious answer -- using the native pony in its home for a job that it is built and bred for.

"It is the logical next step.Hikers could hire a pony to carry their bags or their children could ride while their parents walk. It would add a sense of adventure to any walking trail."

The risk to rare breeds in Ireland and worldwide is something that Mary is keenly aware of.

"During the early part of the 21st Century, 60 breeds, or one per month, disappeared forever," she claimed. "Of the 7,600 breeds of animal reported to the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organisation], 1,500 are at risk of extinction.

"Out of 1.5 million known plant and animal species in the world, 90pc of our livestock comes from 14 animal species and 30 crop species provide 90pc of our calorie intake.

"Rare breeds should not be kept in an underground bunker, they should be kept alive in their native regions.

"There is nowhere better for the Kerry Bog Pony than grazing the bog in the southwest of Ireland, like it has been doing for the past 1,000 years."

'Kerry Bog Pony', written by Mary McGrath and Gay Keogh, costs €20 and is available in bookshops and online at www.associated

Irish Independent