THEY are the iconic symbols that attract thousands of tourists to Hampshire.

Ponies have been roaming the New Forest for 2,000 years, delighting visitors by wandering through the area’s villages.

Yet experts have today warned that the popular animals could end up on the plates of unsuspecting diners.

At least 200 pure-breed New Forest ponies were up for auction last year at Beaulieu Road Sales, with many destined for abattoirs because the “bottom has fallen out of the market”.

As it was revealed that scientific tests found horse meat within burgers sold by supermarkets such as Tesco, Lidl and Aldi, New Forest Verderer Colin Draper told the Daily Echo that unwanted ponies were being snapped up by English abattoirs for as little as £10.

They then sell them on to the French – where the rogue burger meat is believed to have originated.

He said: “It may well be that people are eating New Forest ponies.

“It is not something we promote.

It is a last resort but there are definitely a few that get taken to the slaughterhouse.

“The bottom has fallen out of the market since the economic slump because keeping them is an expensive hobby.”

Strict rules Mr Draper said strict live animal export rules meant horses were now taken to two British abattoirs, in Cheshire and Bristol.

Dionis McNair, a Verderer and a member of the New Forest Pony Breeders and Cattle Society, blamed the oversupply on over-breeding and changing fashion in horses.

She said: “It is a very worrying situation. We would all like the ponies to be used as riding ponies.”

To alleviate the problem, the Verderers, who represent the interests of animal owners in the Forest, have reduced the number of stallions from 40 to ten in the past four years in a bid to reduce the surplus.

Lee Hackett, from the British Horse Society, said the ponies may be attractive to abattoirs because they have less medicine in them then more domesticated horses.

He said: “It means they are more likely to legally enter the food chain. I think the problem is that there are too many horses and there are not enough nice homes for them. Supply has outstripped demand.”

Horse meat accounted for about 29 per cent of the meat content in one burger sample from Tesco, according to the study carried out by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI).

Professor Alan Reilly, chief executive of the FSAI, said there was no health risk but also no reasonable explanation for horse meat to be found.

Tesco, Lidl and Aldi have told food safety chiefs they have removed all implicated products from their shelves.