Hardy little workhorses, their history spans centuries of hauling and helping, carrying peat, fish, and seaweed for their island owners.

For centuries, Eriskay ponies were crucial to crofting life until 1970s farm technology and modern ways took over, and their numbers dwindled.

Today the tough island breed, surefooted and with a coarse coat that has evolved over centuries to withstand the west coast weather is reckoned to be less common than giant pandas.

In a patch of Argyll, however, three young Eriskay ponies are turning back the hands of time, working in harmony with the land in an ambitious rewilding project that aims to return the landscape to a natural mosaic of plants, insects and wildlife.

They may seem an unlikely addition to a rewilding agenda which has tended to focus on more exotic species such as wolves, lynx and wild boar.

But at Ardnackaig Farm, a rugged estate overlooking the Sound of Jura where bracken and rushes cover the landscape in summer, and birch, alder and willow are emerging from the remains of a long-since felled forestry plantation, the Eriskay trio of Tam, Jock and Anna, is already hard at work.

Read more: Scottish rum: The distillers acknowledging its shady past

In tandem with farmer David Stewart’s herd of Highland cows, they graze land once covered with Sitka spruce, trampling the soft ground and doing what comes naturally to help wildflowers and grasses, insects and pollinators grow.

The tough ponies are said to be perfectly suited for the ambitious rewilding project which it’s hoped will return land left behind by crofters then planted with commercial forest to a more natural landscape.

Better still, if Mother Nature does her job, next spring will see the arrival of three new Eriskay foals, offspring for the trio.

The Herald: Tam and Anna - Eriskay ponies helping to rewildTam and Anna - Eriskay ponies helping to rewild (Image: David Stewart)

That would be particularly good news: only three foals were registered last year with Rare Breed Survival Trust (RBST), which classes the breed as ‘critically endangered’.

While the Eriskay Pony Society – one of two rival organisations dedicated to the breed - estimates the current number of ponies stands at around 420, others have suggested it could be much lower.

Although current numbers are bleak, the ponies’ potential benefits for the booming rewilding sector have raised hopes for a rise in demand for the breed, while in the sterile surroundings of a Nottingham laboratory, scientists are also trying to give the breed a much needed helping hand.

There, the latest genetics technology is being used to create a national DNA ‘Tinder’ style matchmaking service intended to take the guesswork out of finding the best match for breeding.

Announced last summer, the biggest ever survey of the breed’s DNA has seen owners around the country share samples of their ponies’ hair to be sequenced at Nottingham Trent University.

Once unlocked, their genetic code enters a nationwide Eriskay Pony Genetic Archive used to ensure owners find the best match for breeding.

The three-year project, developed through the Eriskay Pony Society and the RBST hopes to overcome issues that come from such a small gene pool, and will form a blueprint for other rare equine breeds.

Meanwhile, on Eriskay itself, where a wild herd of around 30 roams freely, a further boost is on the horizon.

There, a landmark historic school dating from the 1800s and closed in 2013, is being turned into a new heritage and cultural hub where another organisation devoted to the breed, the Comann Each nan Eilean, which holds the Stud Book of Origin for Eriskay ponies, aims to become a focal point for the breed on its home territory.

As well as telling the story of the breed, it’s hoped it will raise awareness of its endangered status with visitors, potentially spurring on new interest in securing the ponies’ future.

“They are very much a breed which is in danger,” agrees Liam Crouse, secretary of Comann Each nan Eilean. A longstanding historic split between themselves and The Eriskay Pony Society over the purity of the breed means they do not tend to share information on new foals, making establishing the true number of born each year difficult.

Read more: National Trust for Scotland archaeology: 30 years of discovery

It is understood, however, that Comann Each nan Eilean has recorded four new foals in the past year, and five in 2020, three of which are able to trace their bloodline back to a single pure-bred stallion called Eric.

What all tend to agree upon, however, is the breed has attributes that fits perfectly with the ethos behind the rewilding movement.

“They are a benefit to the environment,” adds Liam. “As native breeds, they will eat things that other animals may not necessarily touch.

“Such as heather: Highland cattle will eat it, but sheep don’t go near it. Eriskay ponies might well eat it, and they will also stamp it down.

“You don’t get much heather, which is beneficial to other types of grass that become available for grazing. So, in terms of conservation grazing, they work very well.”

In Argyll, farmer David Stewart says he deliberately chose his trio partly because of their rich heritage and partly because of their distinct characteristics honed by centuries of hard work in tough island conditions.

It has made them effective at navigating rugged terrain, while an in-born ability to selectively graze and trample plant species means they work in harmony with Highland cows which follow their own distinctive grazing habits.

The Herald: The ponies graze with farmer David Stewart’s herd of Highland cowsThe ponies graze with farmer David Stewart’s herd of Highland cows (Image: David Stewart)

Their natural resilience means they can cope with an ‘arm’s length’ life outdoors, roaming free across 100 hectares of his land, tracked using their GPS collars.

“From a rewilding point of view, I wanted to use native breeds as foragers, and Eriskay ponies are the most native to me in Lochgoilphead,” he says.

“If you bring horses to Argyll, they suffer for the first year or two - the ticks are awful. But a breed that has been in this area for so long is able to withstand the challenges of local climate.”

But while the breed – along with close cousins, Highland and Shetland ponies - may be a perfect fit for rewilding, landowners may find it hard to find Eriskay ponies to work on their land.

“Trying to estimate the population in general is very difficult – it can be challenging to know how many there are,” says Tom Blunt of RBST.

“The other question is how many breeding mares there are that are actively breeding.

“We are trying to encourage more owners to breed, and the challenge then is to try to ensure there’s a marketplace for the breed.”

That could come from landowners seeking to ‘rewild’ their land – and Aidan Maccormick, Northwoods Rewilding Officer for Northwoods, the Scotland-wide chain of landholdings committed to nature recovery and which supported Mr Stewart with a grant from its rewilding fund, says there are clear benefits to introducing native breeds to rewilding projects.

“The butterflies, flowers and insects that exist in Britain evolved with these creatures,” he says.

“They created open grassland meadows and scrub by eating trees or knocking them down or keeping bits of meadows open, they provided dung and shaped the habitat that all these other species thrived in.

“By bringing breeds back we bring back the missing element that has been completely lost – they are critical.

“Cows and horses might not be sexy for rewilding – it’s always lynx or wolves or native forest that we hear about. But they are key to supporting biodiversity.

“Native breeds they can survive winters, they are resistant to natural disease they are really tough. You don’t lose the animals, there’s also pride that comes with supporting a native breed.

“Eriskay ponies have history, and are fantastic if used in rewilding.”

At Ardnackaig Farm, David Stewart is hopeful others involved in rewilding might follow his lead.

“I hope people will wake up to the benefits they bring,” he says.

“They have history written in their genes and the least we can do is keep that going.”

How Eriskay ponies were vital to crofters' life

Sturdy and strong, docile and incredibly beautiful, Eriskay ponies were once a vital component of the crofters’ life.

The ponies carried peat from the fields to the doorsteps of crofters’ homes, and seaweed from the shoreline to fertilise their crops.

Descended from the undomesticated equine which once roamed Scotland’s forests and hills long before settlements of people took shape, they reached a peak in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Highland Clearances took their toll, as owners departed and fewer ponies were needed. The arrival of motor vehicles and better roads made transportation much easier which drove them close to extinction, while cross breeding diluted the breed.

By the early Seventies it was thought no pure Eriskay stallions were left. Island-based pony organisation, Comann Each nan Eilean, faced buying a Western Isles type Highland Pony – the closest breed genetically to the Eriskay Pony – in order to encourage the breed back.

However, a pure but unlicensed Eriskay stallion, named Eric, was later discovered in South Uist and taken to the neighbouring Isle of Barra to breed with pure mares from Eriskay.

His descendants have gone on to secure the purity of the breed on their native island, with all ponies bred through the society able to trace their male bloodline back to Eric.