Saving rare breed Eriskay ponies on a tiny Scottish island

For generations they worked hard on the island, stout and sturdy with baskets of seaweed and peat on their backs.

Sunday, 11th October 2020, 7:30 am

Now a campaign to raise awareness of the Eriskay Pony – one of three native breeds left in the UK – is underway, with fresh hopes to build an island centre that both celebrates the heritage of the ponies as well as protect their diminishing numbers for the future.

Donald John MacInnes, who has lived on the island all his life and keeps six pure breed ponies, said: “Back in the day, there were something like 70 crofts and ponies were part of life on the island. Everyone had a pony – or you borrowed one.

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“They were used for the transport of material, probably the most vital being peat for the fire and seaweed, which would be taken from the shore up to the crofts.

Life on the edge - there are less than 100 pure breed Eriskay Ponies left with renewed hopes to protect and raise awareness of the animals.
Life on the edge - there are less than 100 pure breed Eriskay Ponies left with renewed hopes to protect and raise awareness of the animals.

“In the last couple of years, I have started putting harnesses on my ponies to raise awareness of them. I want to go further into that, and bring them to prominence again as working animals and to show the way we were so it doesn’t completely disappear.

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“For me, it stems back to memories of childhood, how we looked after the ponies, how your family, friends and neighbours kept them. They were part of island life. People needed the ponies, they were used here up until the 1980s, and that is why they are probably still here .”

The Rare Breeds Survival Trust has put the Eriskay Pony on the ‘critical’ list, which means there are fewer than 300 of the animals left. However, Mr MacInnes said there were probably fewer than 100 pure breed ponies remaining.

The ponies were used as working animals, moving peat and seaweed on Eriskay, until the 1980s.

Mr MacInnes is a member of the Comann Each nan Eilean - The Eriskay Pony Society, which holds the Stud Book of Origin for the breed and does not allow for cross-breeding, with only 100 per cent Eriskay stallions used.

A separate society does allow cross breeding.

Between 20 to 30 ponies can now be found on Eriskay, with small numbers on neighbouring Barra, Lewis and Harris, as well as parts of the UK mainland. Five foals were born on the islands this year, three of them pure.

Last week, the ponies were put out for winter grazing and will roam free on the island.

Donald John MacInnes with one of his six pure breeds harnessed up with baskets to show the traditional way of the pony.


Mr MacInnes said: "They find their own shelter and the majority of their own food. They tend to go on shore for the extra minerals from the seaweed, but you still keep an eye on them. They normally come up to the house every day.”

Fundraising is underway in order to build a centre on Eriskay that would showcase the ponies and their heritage. One possible site for the centre is at the old primary school, which closed in 2014 and has now been taken over by Eriskay Heritage Society.

Mr MacInnes said: "The ponies are incredibly endangered. We want to have a dedicated place for our ponies as, at the moment, we don’t have a place where people can come and learn about the ponies and come and experience them, where you can walk out with them and meet their foals.”

It is thought around £140,000 will be needed for the project.

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