FEARS have been raised that some of the horse meat contained in Tesco beefburgers could have come from New Forest ponies.

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

New Forest Verderer Colin Draper said unwanted ponies were being snapped up by English abattoirs for £10. They then sell them to France – where the rogue burger meat is believed to have originated.

Mr Draper 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.”

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

Burley resident 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 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 due to lower medication levels than domesticated horses.

He said: “It means they are more likely to legally enter the food chain. There are too many horses and 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). Other burgers tested, from Iceland, Aldi and Lidl, had traces of horsemeat in them.

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.

And Tesco has placed full-page adverts in a number of national newspapers apologising to customers for selling the burgers.

The apology came as a food expert claimed horse meat could have been in beef burgers for years, but remained undetected.

The UK's food watchdog, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), is also considering taking legal action against companies at the centre of the scandal.

Tesco promised refunds to customers who had bought the contaminated products, which it identified as Tesco Everyday Value 8 x Frozen Beef Burgers (397g), Tesco 4 x Frozen Beef Quarter Pounders (454g), and a branded product, Flamehouse Frozen Chargrilled Quarter Pounders.