The future of the rare pony indigenous to the Greek-Aegean island of Skyros may now depend on half a dozen mares and two stallions on the island of Corfu. Large herds used to roam semi-wild on their native island. Of them only about 20 are thought to be left.
A supervised breeding program for the breed is taking place on the Silva Estate in Corfu. It is the only non-Skyrian colony of the breed. Three Skyrian foals were born here in the past eighteen months. ‘I’m so delighted that they are all fillies,’ said Sylvia Steen, owner of Silva Estate.
This diminutive but hardy pony was until recently vital to the agricultural economy of Skyros. The reasons for their decline are - overgrazing of their wild habitat - the ‘Vouno’ (‘mountain’) of the island’s south - by EU-subsidized sheep and goats; poor husbandry of the existing ponies and lack of an organized breeding programs; as well as the existence of a law which bans their export from the island.
Local government officials and shepherds blocked a recent EU-supported attempt to provide a fenced refuge for the ponies on the Vouno.
Vouno is an area of 3,200 hectares owned by Mount Athos and let out to local shepherds. In an attempt to obtain EU livestock subsidies, shepherds have overstocked with up to 30,000 beasts. Due to which, nearly ten times the sustainable number of sheep and goats are currently grazing the Vouno.
Meanwhile, EU recommendation regarding a sustainable population on such extensive grazing land is one sheep or goat per hectare, meaning the area should support a maximum of 3,200 animals. Damage to herbage, loss of many rare plant species and wanton erosion are the serious consequences of this gross overstocking.
A 1998 study, entitled ‘The effects of heavy grazing on shrub characteristics on the Vouno, Skyros Island’, by the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology substantiates evidence of ecological damage. The report was the first proper survey by a qualified ecologist which concluded that ‘the current number of animals is damaging the ecosystem of the Vouno; shrubs have impenetrable canopies with many dead parts as a result of the grazing. A change in the subsidy system will be necessary to alter the situation. The Vouno is an extremely attractive area with many positive features: ponies, rare plants, and clean beaches. It is possible that a future use of the area could combine low intensity grazing with eco-tourism.’
The report was brought about by the instigation of Edinburgh veterinary professor Alex Copland, who is advising the Corfu breeding program. He is concerned that since the local organization set up by the Municipality to carry out certain functions for the welfare of this breed has gone bankrupt, the local authority is unable to take an annual count of the ponies. As a result, preparation of a stud book on a computer database and micro-chipping of each animal for identification is at a virtual standstill. A new official, Nikos Kritikos, has been appointed to rectify the situation, but he faces almost insurmountable hurdles.
In September 1999, following negotiations with Mr Kritikos and with a grant forthcoming form the EU, the Vouno’s monk landlords of Mount Athos agreed to fence in 7,000 stremata (1750 acres) of land, and provide a water supply. This scheme would have provided a refuge for up to 100 ponies.