One afternoon last week, on our nearby Forest green, a small herd of New Forest mares was grazing on short new grass. Forest ponies usually live and graze together in small groups. Sometimes two lifelong friends will form a pair bond and will seem quite independent of a larger group. During the winter months, family groups of around four to six mares are a common sight.
It is May and the mares may have a foal at foot or may be coming into season and will be receptive to a stallion. This is the time when small groups band together. If foals are around, there is safety in numbers. In a larger group, the dynamics of herd behaviour come into play.
This group comprises several smaller families. The little threesome of young maiden mares who live around here have joined the older mares. Throughout the day, the older mares had been sorting out their pecking order and a fit, shining bay mare had proved to be the Alpha Mare who would lead and discipline this little herd over the coming weeks. She is the one with her back to the camera in the next photograph.
The young mares put up little resistance to her, but some of her older companions needed reminding who was the boss. With swishing tail, ears back and her face contorted into a threatening grimace, the Alpha Mare would chase, bite and round up anyone daring to wander away or to ignore her instructions. The body language of horses is fascinating to those of us who watch and handle them regularly. Being able to watch a native pony herd coming together and working out their relationships is something quite remarkable.
Although the junior mares were grazing, they were far from relaxed. Their tails constantly swished and one ear was always locked on to the direction of Alpha Mare, in case she should approach them and issue some instructions!
This year, a relatively small number of selected stallions are being released to serve the New Forest mares and they will be running on the Forest for just one month. The financial recession has lead to a crisis of equine welfare in Britain. There is little demand for foals and the New Forest Commoners do not want to breed unwanted ponies.
If our little herd meets a stallion, they will join up with yet more mares and the competition for the role of Alpha Mare will be played out again. The Alpha Mare has a great responsibility. She is the one who will lead the herd to new pasture, to water or out of danger while the stallion will bring up the rear of the herd, gathering his mares together and herding them into order as they move onwards.
As there was a lot of unrest among the ponies, I decided to turn away and find some of the wild flowers growing in the lanes and on the heath.
In the hedge bottoms, greater stitchwort was growing among emerging honeysuckle leaves.
A few late dog violets were still in flower.
There are a few non-native purple rhododendrons up on the hill. Many have been taken out by the Forestry workers as they are invasive and not good wildlife habitats, but while they are in flower, they do look lovely amongst the creamy white, blossoming hawthorn.
Young bracken is beginning to arch its fronds out of the earth and the bright yellow stars of tormentil are a sure sign of summer on the heath.
Natural adaptation - on the cropped grass of the valley floor, bluebells grow small on short, stumpy stems.......
......but protected in shady hedges, they grow tall and slender, upwards towards the light.
Back on the green, the restless mares still grouped and regrouped, testing each other out and moving the younger ones around, but the bay Alpha Mare won the day. Later I saw her leading her mares along the lane and up towards the good grass on the hill.