NEW Forest pony owners are coming under pressure from animal welfare groups to scrap the ancient practice of branding and replace it with microchipping.

Every year many of the 3,500 ponies roaming the New Forest are rounded up and branded with a red-hot instrument which leaves an instantly identifiable mark on their back.

The equine "number plate" enables the authorities to trace the owners of sick and injured livestock.

Organisations such as the RSPCA say it is time to end the "suffering" felt by the ponies, most of which are still foals.

But the New Forest Verderers, who represent the interests of pony owners, are fighting calls to end the ancient custom.

They say it enables them to identify the semi-wild animals from a distance, avoiding the problems caused by trying to use a microchip scanner.

It follows a report produced by independent equine welfare expert Dr Mark Kennedy, who is based at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge.

An RSPCA spokesman said: “Dr Kennedy has concluded the practice of hot branding should end. His report says branding is likely to cause significant pain and suffering, and the suffering is unnecessary because there are effective alternatives.

“Owners of horses and ponies should have them micro-chipped as this is likely to be the least painful method of identification.”

In a statement the New Forest Verderers said: “Hot branding may not be a perfect tool but it does provide a quick, permanent means of instant identification, which enables Verderers and Agisters to manage the ponies’ welfare.”

The statement says the branding iron is applied for only one or two seconds. It adds: “Apart from the difficulties of reading a microchip at a distance, obtaining any information from it could take time and would not necessarily give the current owner the right data.”

The New Forest Pony Breeding and Cattle Society is supporting the Verderers’ stand.

A spokesman said: “I think hot branding is far less stressful. It’s over very quickly whereas, with microchipping, the animal has to be restrained, sometimes for quite a long time.

“And in order to read a microchip you have to get within two to four inches, which can be stressful for a semi-feral animal.”