Foula was a fieldwork presence before I ever set foot on the island. Stories of “the edge of the world”: Of high cliffs, hostile seas and teeming seabird cities. Looking across from the west side of Shetland my attention, and imagination was drawn to its mist shrouded hills, at times tantalisingly close, on other days made invisible by weather.
But it was the ponies that really drew me to Foula. Tales of Shetland ponies living as they had for centuries, out on the open hill.
At 20 miles from mainland Sheltand and with a population below thirty, Foula is often depicted as one of the wildest and most remote areas of the UK. In June 2015 I gazed out the window of the eight seater plane, excitement rising as we came in to land. As the plane bounced to a halt, the area around the air strip was a hive of activity. Boxes were loaded on the plane and farewells said to the small group of passengers boarding. A fire engine, present for the landing, moved away to park up until tomorrow’s flight. Several people warily eyed flock of meandering sheep, ready to shoo them if they strayed onto the runway.
As I walked along the island’s only road in search of ponies, I was struck by the sheer presence of the hills that give Foula its distinctive shape. Although mainland Shetland has areas of cliff and hill, there is nothing to compare to these steep, jagged peaks, silhouetted against the sky and visible from everywhere on the island. At the bottom of the hills, by the sea, the ground is alive with the pinks and yellows of wildflowers and the constant motion of bog cotton bobbing and rearing in the wind. The rasping call of fulmar and the cluck of bonxies mixed with a low howl from the wind and the distant baaing of sheep.
It is landscapes like this, of hill, sea and wind, where the Shetland pony has lived and evolved for thousands of years. These landscapes had a major influence on the ways domestication relationships unfolded in Shetland and continue to influence contemporary practice.
As I approached the cottage where one of the pony breeders lived I was surprised by how few ponies I could see. A piebald stallion pranced, watchful, his mane whipped by the wind. In the next field a grey mare and foal stood, ears pricked, while a small brown pony approached the gate. “Most of my ponies are out there” Sheila told me gesturing towards the hill behind us. As she introduced the horses she commented on what a good mother the gray mare is before stating that she expects this to be her last foal before she joins the pensioners. Intrigued, I asked who these pensioners are.
Sheila described how by watching ponies on the hill, over time you start to notice certain continuities in behaviour. You see which ponies like to spend time with each other and how they behave differently towards their friends. Older mares, even from different herds, will often start to spend time together. In the past these groups of mares would often successfully avoid the stallion, choosing not to allow themselves to get in foal. Even now that there is no stallion on the hill the “OAPs” still form their own group.
Often you can predict if there is likely to be bad weather coming based on where on the hill the horses have chosen to shelter. In summer, when you see them running, prancing, shaking their tails and heading to the highest parts of the hill then you know it is a good day to caa the sheep. The ponies are moving to get out of the way of dense midge clouds which also bother the sheep. This means the flock is likely to be happy be herded down towards the croft where the wind coming in off the sea is likely to disperse the midges somewhat.
Although Sheila does not go out every day with the specific purpose of visiting the hill ponies, as she goes about her everyday tasks like bird counts, leading guided walks and croft work, she pays attention to where the ponies are and what they are doing. If some days have passed and a particular pony has not been seen she will ask around to see if anybody else knows where they are. During my time in Foula I heard several conversations where people would update each other on where they had recently seen ponies. If none of her neighbours had seen the pony recently then she would go to the hill to look for them. Different ponies have their favourite places, and where they are most likely to be in depends a lot on the weather conditions, so she usually has a good idea where to look. In most cases the ponies will be found fairly quickly in the places they are expected to be. She said that the ponies are very well adapted to life out on the hill, it is the ideal environment for them. The only mares that are kept down by the croft are the younger ones who are being worked with and any that are older or ill.
I had met Penny and had quick chats several times as I walked along the island’s main road. With a croft, family and several jobs she was always busy and it was not until later in the week that I managed to spend some time with her on the croft with her ponies. Two playful chestnut and white foals frolicked through the long grass as she introduced her ponies, giving a quick biography of each. On mainland Shetland, breeders will often have a time when they bring the pregnant mares to fields near to the croft when they think foaling time is drawing close. I asked Penny how they know the right time to bring them down when the ponies are far away in the hill? She said that she doesn’t. It is the ponies who choose when to come down and they know the right time.
As foaling time approaches, mares come down to the croft where they know they will find extra feed and safe sheltered area to give birth. If foaling time was approaching and a mare had not been seen*, she would go into the hill to look for her and bring her down but in most cases the mares come themselves. Once the foals are born, Sheila and Penny spend a lot of time working with them. Though these practices, ponies become used to contact and learn to associate the croft with food, care and safety. While living up on the hill, ponies will often choose to return to the croft: to visit members of their herd that are kept in;** to get a little extra feed or if they have fallen ill. Both breeders described trusting their animal’s intelligence and instincts to know when to come to the croft.
The way these crofters in Foula work with their animals epitomizes the ideals of autonomy that many Shetland breeders would like their ponies to demonstrate. For most of their lives the ponies live independently on the hill. Their owners, trusting their intelligence and adaptability, allow them to thrive in their herds with minimal human intervention. Although at first glance this may seem like a very hands off form of animal husbandry, in practice it takes a lot of time and knowledge. It is not a case of just setting animals loose on the hill and expecting them to survive. Ponies early years are characterised by intensive human contact and both breeders I worked with said they would never put an animal out on the hill that they felt did not have the knowledge and skills to thrive out there. They need to trust that each pony has the sense to live as part of the hill herd but also that they consider the croft a safe place they can return to. Although breeders do not often go into the hill specifically to look for their ponies, as they go about daily life, they pay attention to the hill and the animals they see there. This attention extends from breeders to other members of the community. In this way, the health and location of ponies becomes part of the conversation and social life on this island.
*Also if any mare had not been seen or there was any concern for an animal on the hill both Sheila and Penny would go to look for them to ensure their wellbeing.
**Ponies may be kept in for various reasons such as old age, ill health, waiting for vet visit etc