AN ANNUAL programme of New Forest pony round-ups are likely to be significantly reduced because of Covid-19 restrictions and large numbers of visitors.
The gatherings, known as drifts, traditionally begin in August and continue through September and October, taking in pre-arranged sections of Forest.
They are organised by the agisters and commoners to collect together as many free-roaming ponies as possible for health checks, branding, processing or dispersal.
However, minutes from the June meeting of the Verderers’ Court reveal that question marks remain over the programme of drifts this summer.
The minutes state: “The current Covid-19 restrictions mean at present the drifts cannot take place. It takes two or three people to brand a pony, all working closely together.”
While there are exceptions to Covid-19 rules in agricultural practices, such as asparagus picking, the verderers pointed out that many of those taking part in the drifts are not employees, so their behaviour is far more difficult to police and manage.
Verderers clerk Sue Westward confirmed that drifts were “highly unlikely” to begin as usual in August because of problems with social distancing and increased visitor numbers to the Forest.
She said: “It is a very difficult situation because we have many, many more people in the Forest this year than usual and we have to manage the safety of the public very carefully when we are undertaking the drifts.
“However, they are very important to the welfare of the ponies and if we did not undertake drifts there would certainly be problems further down the line.”
Health and welfare checks are particularly important for the New Forest pony foals which have been born this year.
Traditionally around 40 New Forest drifts are held every autumn, but this year that number will be significantly reduced.
However, Ms Westward confirmed that proposals are being put in place to ensure some could go ahead as planned.
She added: “We are still working on the final details of which drifts will go ahead and how they will be managed. The timetable is likely to change. As soon as we have firm details we will be publishing them widely so the public can be informed and alerted.”