Skyrian’s the limit for Sheilagh

Sheilagh Brown of Overton Bush near Camptown with two of her Skyrian ponies, Bambouras (left) and Ioli.
Sheilagh Brown of Overton Bush near Camptown with two of her Skyrian ponies, Bambouras (left) and Ioli.

A PRIZE-WINNING local vet is continuing work to save a small Greek pony breed.

Jedburgh’s Sheilagh Brown, who won a top student prize and gained a first in equine science this year, took over the only Scottish herd of Skyrian ponies from another vet last year.

Mrs Brown of Overton Bush said: “My main aim is to increase the numbers and keep the breed going. There are fewer than 200 in the world.”

There are also only two other breeding herds in the world – one in their homeland, Skyros, one of the Sporades Islands, and the other on Corfu.

It was in 2005 that retired vet lecturer Alec Copland, who also breeds Exmoor ponies, imported five breeding animals from Corfu.

He had increased their number to 14 by the time Mrs Brown, looking to buy another Exmoor pony, went to see Mr Copland’s herd of Exmoors.

“When I was looking at his Exmoors, he showed me the Skyrian ponies and asked me if I wanted them instead, “ said Mrs Brown.

That was June last year. Now, the only herd known to exist outside Greece numbers 22. Mrs Brown did not have enough grazing for all of them and the little ponies are distributed among other enthusiasts around southern Scotland.

“I fell in love with them. I’m very interested in their background and where they come from because they are an interesting mix of the outdoor type, like a Shetland, but they also have a lot of features which come more from the Arab – very fine bones, thin skin, and a very rangy frame which would suggest they’re more a southern type, like the Caspian pony.

“And there’s their docility, they’re lovely gentle creatures, I just liked them and thought I would have a go at it and help keep Alec’s breeding programme going.”

Originally from Perthshire, the Defra vet moved with her family to the Borders in 2002. The 54-year-old rode as a child and returned to the pastime when her children rode. It was her interest in the Skyros ponies that prompted her equine science honours degree via distance learning. Now she hopes to do a PhD on rare breed horses.

She says: “Recent genetic studies have confirmed observations that the Skyrians are quite unique; while other Greek horse breeds are related to Middle Eastern types, the Skyrian, appears unrelated to any horse breed that has been tested so far.

“Similarities in coat colour and markings (the dorsal stripe, mealy muzzle and eyes) suggest connections with the Exmoor or Gotland Russ, but the Skyrian`s fine skin, slender body and limbs, small feet and definite horse-shape are more indicative of an Arab extraction.”

The ponies were used by farmers on Skyros for threshing grain and other agricultural work, but mechanisation in the 1960s made them redundant and numbers fell. Then legislation banning the sale of the pure-bred pony, thus encouraging crossbreeding, hit the breed further, as did European Union grants encouraging farmers to keep sheep and goats which led to overgrazing of the ponies’ mountain grounds.

“The result was that the Skyrian pony is one of the rarest horse breeds with fewer than 100 breeding mares and the Food and Agriculture Organisation have designated it as critical-maintained,” said Mrs Brown.

She has two of Mr Copland’s original foundation stock – a mare and a stallion – at her home, along with another mare, a colt and two fillies born this year.

The ponies stand about 10-11 hands high and the Skyrian and Corfu keepers say they make good children’s mounts.

Mrs Brown is bringing on her three-year-old colt and hopes to introduce him to the saddle.

“They are willing and co-operative learners, seemingly unfazed by tack and quickly responding to aids from the ground. I wish they were a couple of hands larger so that I could ride them myself!” said Mrs Brown.

“They are also legendary lawnmowers, transforming untidy, rough grazing, whatever the slope or ground conditions, into well-cropped grass!”

And they are nice to each other.

“They are remarkably sociable and you rarely see biting and kicking at feeding time, ” said Mrs Brown.

She’s expecting four more foals next year. For more information contact sheilaghbrown2008@hotmail.co.uk.