THE NEW Forest has been hit by an outbreak of the highly-contagious horse disease strangles.

Strangles has been a growing problem among the Forest's 4,000 ponies for some years but a number of new cases detected in the north western region of the national park has given horse owners new cause for alarm as fears rise that the outbreak is beginning to spread.

Head agister Jonathan Gerrelli told the Forest Journal that the outbreak was initially detected in the Woodgreen and Godshill areas but had now spread to Hale Purlieu.

"We believe this outbreak started in a livery yard but we did not know about it until we found a pony with strangles in the Forest.

"The disease is airborne and highly contagious, often carried by flies.

"It spreads easier when the weather is still and dry.

"Recent weather conditions have helped prevent the spread because in wet weather ponies are dispersed and do not form large herds, which makes it easier for infection to be passed on."

No statistics are available but the number of strangles cases in the Forest is understood to have now reached double figures.

Strangles, which affects the lymph nodes, is caused by the bacteria streptococcus equi. It causes flu-like symptoms among horses and an abscess in the throat and jaw.

The lymph nodes between the jawbone become enlarged, causing the horse to make strangled breathing sounds. If not treated, the disease can be fatal, particularly among young horses.

"It is nasty but as soon as the abscess bursts the ponies will make a rapid recovery," Mr Gerrelli said.

Owners of domestic horse stock are being warned to be vigilant and to stay away from the affected areas to prevent the spread of the disease.

Horses and ponies of all ages are susceptible to strangles but the disease is particularly common in animals that are less than five years old.

Initial symptoms include high fever, depression and loss of appetite, followed by a nasal discharge that turns thick and yellow.

Mr Gerrelli said that all five Agisters were checking the Forest ponies daily and they were only taken from the Forest if they were extremely sick.

"We have eyes and ears all around the Forest, we check the horses, the commoners check their horses and the public will contact us if they see a very sick horse."

"The welfare of the ponies is paramount," he said.

Because of the nature of the Forest, the animals roam freely, usually within a distance of a mile or two.

Official Verderers' policy to control strangles is to isolate any outbreak.

When a case of strangles is detected, the animal is not removed unless it is very sick, thereby containing the disease to a limited area.

However, this year, a prolonged cold winter and late spring meant an unusually large 400 animals, mostly ponies, were sent back to their farms and holdings to regain their health with supplements before they were turned out again to graze.

The large recovery has raised fears among horse owners that if any of those animals had strangles when recovered then they may helped spread strangles into the general recreational horse population.

Ringwood horse owner Teresa Baker said: "If I lived where the outbreak is I would certainly not ride on the open Forest. It is very worrying."

Horse and Hound editor Lucy Higginson said: "Strangles is pretty grim and ghastly when it takes hold with horrible abscesses and can be fatal."

She told the Forest Journal that it was vital to follow rigid guidelines from the vet to contain the disease.

The Verderers said strangles is still confined to a relatively small area of the Forest.

Clerk to the Verderers Sue Westwood said: "We have got strangles in the north west corner of the Forest and it has moved slightly. We have a number of ponies that went down with it some weeks ago.

"It affects the weaker horses but people are not to panic, we get it every year.

"The advice we give to horse owners with fields bordering the New Forest is not to get too close to New Forest ponies and to build an electric fence and take suitable precautions."

Equine veterinary surgeon Martin Peaty, from The Barn, at Three Legged Cross, said there had been repeated outbreaks of strangles but the disease had to be kept in perspective.

"Public panic about strangles is unnecessary. I can think of a lot more horses that have died as a result of road traffic accidents, colic or tetanus.

"Strangles is not a notifiable disease so we rely on people's goodwill to report a case."

Mr Peaty added: "There is a vaccination that has become available against strangles, which needs to be administered every three-six months, so it is not practical with Forest ponies."