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The famous New Forest ponies are now officially a rare breed, it has been revealed.

Numbers of new foals have dwindled over the last five years, leaving the semi-feral herd to be listed as a minority breed for the first time.

The ponies have roamed the ancient area for centuries.

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But just 423 foals were born last year – less than a third of the 1,463 newborns registered five years ago.

Now, with less than 3,000 registered adult breeding females, they have appeared as a minority breed on a special “watchlist” for the first time.

Jane Murray, pictured, secretary of the New Forest Pony Breeding and Cattle Society (NFPBCS), said they are “walking a tightrope” to maintain numbers and a diverse gene pool.

In a joint statement with other interested groups, including the Forest’s Verderers, she said: “Rapidly changing market conditions over the last few years have changed the horse world, probably for ever.

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“The situation for horses and ponies has to be viewed in the national context.”

Steps are being taken to tackle the “new challenges” facing the breed, she added.

The Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) listed New Forest Ponies in its minority breed category, for animals with a population of 1,500 to 3,000.

Figures released by the NFPBCS show the number of pure-bred ponies living freely in the Forest dropped from 1,057 in 2009 to 197 in 2013. Just ten stallions were put out to mate last season.

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The statement continued: “With the current combination of over-supply and economic pressures continuing to depress the national equine market, the New Forest pony community and the RBST cannot ethically encourage widespread breeding.

“We will be working together to breed responsibly to maintain genetic diversity and fulfil our obligations as the guardians of one of the |UK’s most iconic native breeds and part of our national |heritage.”

An RBST conservation officer said the drop from more than 3,300 adult breeding females last year to “several hundred” below 3,000 was a “steep decline”.

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The ponies graze the Forest in a tradition dating back as far as 1016, when people living there were given rights of common pasture.

Each pony is owned by a “commoner”, someone whose property has common rights allowing them to turn out ponies to graze on the Forest.

The ponies are rounded up each autumn in “drifts” for health checks and branding, while pony sales are held several times a year.