Sunday, June 24, 2012

24th June, 2012 Hot topic!

It's great that over 10,000 people have already signed the petition for the abolition of multiple branding of ponies. I've signed it too because I think the petition reflects exactly my reasoning which I have expressed on this blog some years ago. HOWEVER the comments made by people signing up to the petition reveal an amazing level of misinformation and misunderstanding that could undermine the petition itself. For example some people seem to believe that New Forest ponies are not branded at all and identified simply by tail marking, others believe that ear tagging or freeze branding would be less cruel and others believe that the technology already exists (microchips) that mean that ponies can be readily identified.

I'd like to put a few facts forward and then ask you to make a considered decision about signing the petition which is available here:

At present it is not illegal to hot brand semi-feral ponies in England and Wales. It was banned in Scotland some time ago. Why the discrepancy? The main reason is that there are no mixed herds of semi-feral ponies living in Scotland

Why brand at all? Whilst all foals now have to be microchipped, those microchips cannot be read by a microchip reader from more than a metre away. Thus it is impossible for someone without a microchip reader or without being within one metre of a wild pony with a microchip reader to be able to readily identify it. Accordingly if an owner of a pony within a mixed herd, or someone taxed with overseeing their welfare such as an agister, wants to positively identify their pony then they would need to drift in (i.e. round up) a large group of ponies, possibly in foal or with a foal at foot, every time they wanted to identify one pony. This has its own welfare implications as round ups are physically exerting for the ponies - the ponies don't want to come in!  Being rounded up on frequent occasions is not good for the mental welfare of the ponies either.

The technology may already exist to provide better microchips that can be read from further away but if so no one has offered one yet. As usual there is no money on offer for further research into such a device. The ponies in themselves may not be all that valuable but as a vital conservation tool in the management of the flora and fauna of our national parks they are extremely valuable.

It is important to be able to identify ponies readily in order to protect them if they are ill or their condition is dropping back and to prevent them being stolen or inadvertently incorporated into the wrong Commoner's herd. The Commoner is at least entitled to the same protection of his ponies as the owner of a domesticated horse who could opt for freeze-branding.

Freeze-branding is not pain free and in some cases horses experience extreme discomfort whilst the freeze brands are applied. Each individual freeze-brand (and there are usually three or four) has to be applied for 30 seconds. This is just not feasible with semi-feral foals where they would have to be kept still for a total of a minute and a half. With hot branding it is the need to manhandle them that is at least as mentally harmful as the branding itself and grappling with them to keep them still for so much longer would be extremely harmful. In any event they would still move around too much for the brand to be applied cleanly and not smudge - for this very reason putting them in a crush would not solve the problem at all.

Microchipping itself is not pain free either but the Government has insisted that it is done. Once again it leads to forceful handling of the foal in order to keep it still but it can also be achieved very easily in a crush as is routinely done at the sales.

At least one of the signatories to the petition has stated that the ponies could be ear-tagged as with cows. This would be a terrible thing to do to ponies. It must be incredibly painful to calves but once again deemed to be necessary by the Government (it's all because of the food chain and nothing to do with welfare). Horses seem to be even more sensitive in their ears and ear-tagging would cause immense and prolonged pain. Not only that, but the ear tags rip out for a pastime and semi-feral ponies frequently engage in mutual grooming and play fighting as well as inhabiting areas where there are trees with spiky branches everywhere. Thank goodness ear nothing (cutting out shapes) in ponies' ears has been outlawed for some time.

This brings us round to multiple branding. Here in the New Forest ponies are rarely branded twice unless a particular Commoner insists on a second brand. The normal brand is put on the saddle area so that if the pony were ever to be domesticated and ridden it would be hidden. I can only assume that is why the odd Commoner asks for a second brand be placed on the shoulder. In my view this is never necessary and is the equivalent of highlighting who the pony belongs to as a sort of designer label. The only other reason why a pony would be branded twice would be if changed hands. In those circumstances the Verderers insist on the pony being re-branded so that it is clear as to whom the pony belongs so that they can be traced if there are welfare issues.

To people who say we can't wait for that technology and must just ban branding altogether I would just ask that you come and find my plain bay mare amongst all the other plain bay mares without being able to read her brand, or because she is actually friendly, calling her name. Many Commoners have far more ponies, 100's more ponies, than I've got.

On Exmoor the ponies are branded as many as three times. The first brand is their individual number, the second is often a herd symbol and the third a Diamond shape which is meant to indicate that they are eligible for registration having been inspected and found to fit the breed standard. To me the second brand is a conceit, another designer 'status' label. The eligibility brand has invited a great deal of controversy since ponies that are subsequently found to be ineligible for registration have already been branded and ponies that are found to be eligible after the first inspection and branding have to go through the whole process again. These second and third brands can never be deemed necessary.

NO BRAND can ever be justified unless the ponies are destined to be kept out in mixed herds. If the ponies are intended to domesticated or to be sold into domestication then it is not necessary and can only be a matter of an owner's pride.

It is this multiple branding on Exmoor that has brought matters to a head, along with some of the poor branding practices particularly on Exmoor and Dartmoor. I am well aware that if multiple branding is banned and a derogation system applied so that people with semi-feral ponies kept in mixed herds have to apply to be able to brand their pony with one brand, then I along with other New Forest commoners will be the last bastion of people who will be permitted to brand their ponies. It will be our heads that will be above the parapet. However, I don't see that as a reason to justify this multiple-branding. If people don't see when the writing is on the wall and react accordingly, that's their problem. Accordingly, if anyone really knows of some technology that is available to be able to readily trace and identify my wild New Forest ponies I will be the first to try it even if it costs more than my ponies. We can only hope that in the future the pressure to find this technology (and the need to protect the Forest with our ponies) will warrant the development of such technology at whatever cost.

Just for the sake of completeness I'd like to briefly describe the normal practice of branding as carried out in the New Forest and how it differs from the practice on Exmoor. On the Forest branding tends to be carried out by one of the five agisters or by one of a small group of Commoners who are extremely well practised in branding the ponies. The brand is heated up on an open and hot fire so that it is at the optimum temperature. The pony is usually pushed up against the fence in the drift pen, next to its mother and without a head restraint. The area to be branded is trimmed with scissors and the brand is applied for approximately three seconds. The foal is then released. Many don't appear to react at all but I don't deny that it is painful at the time and that it continues to be painful afterwards. Nevertheless it is applied quickly and efficiently and manhandling is kept to an absolute minimum. Occasionally the handlers do twist the pony's tail or an ear in order to keep the pony still and in the case of the ear in the mistaken belief that this provides temporary pain relief. In my experience this can cause ponies that are later domesticated to be ear shy on one side and although it may lead to the release of endorphins, it does so through creating pain in the first place. Just remember though that many vets still apply nose twitches as a matter of routine for exactly the same reasons - the very same vets that it is being suggested should be present whenever a pony is branded.Both practices should stop.

On Exmoor the scenario is very different as foals are often completely separated from their mothers to be inspected (which includes lifting the feet) and then branded with three separate brands. In order to do this they have a halter forced on to them and they are tied up to something solid. Inevitably they go into pressure, fighting the rope and often pull backwards until they can hardly breath - these are not self releasing halters. This makes them still enough to be branded and then they are released. By the last brand they are full aware of what is coming and are absolutely petrified. This coupled with the forceful application of the halter is the absolute undoing of the ponies mentally in my view and is what leads to them being so difficult to train and to their reputation as tricky ponies. I have said it over and over again that a pony that has had a headcollar forced on it is at least ten times more difficult to halter train than one which has never experienced a headcollar at all.

I have had first hand accounts of brands not being heated up properly (sometimes with a blow torch) and having to be reapplied to the same spot because they haven't worked or the ineptitude of the person branding them.

Tail marking incidentally is done on the Forest once a year with a pair of scissors and is the practice of cutting a pony's tail into a certain shape, leaving most of it long, so that the agister can tell which part of the Forest it is meant to be in and whether it's marking fees have been paid. Since there are only five shapes into which it can be cut then it is not a method of identification at all. Needless to say it also grows out pretty rapidly as would paint. The collars which some of the ponies wear are simply to show them up in the dark to reduce the risk of them being run over. The collars, which have to come away easily if the pony gets caught up, don't tend to stay on for very long.

There, that's about all I can think of for now but I hope it goes some way to explaining how this whole thing came about. I'm pretty ecstatic that brands applied for reasons of  pride and traditional reasons may shortly be banned. Why should the ponies pay for that?

p.s.! I'm not sure that it should be necessary to have a vet in attendance. Some of the vets I have seen are pretty inept and just as neanderthal at handling semi-feral ponies as other people when they feel they need to get a job done. If it simply in a supervisory capacity that's one thing but the level of supervision and intervention that I have seen at sales yards has been pretty poor so I can't see how this would greatly improve things. It would be better to ensure that the people who do the branding come from a small set of people who have proved that they are competent.

If the pain relief or perhaps sedation consists of an injection  that could go badly wrong too as semi-feral ponies are pretty wriggly and sedation can only act as a dimmer switch if adrenalin levels are low. It has to be remembered that the very purpose of a brand is actually to scar the pony for life so anything applied to the brand itself would not have to undo that.