VISITORS to the New Forest are being warned to stay clear of the area’s roaming ponies over fears of the spread of equine flu.

Commoners in the forest have warned approaching, feeding and stroking the free-roaming ponies increases the risk of them contracting the disease.

The warning comes after an outbreak of equine flu sparked the cancellation of horse racing events across Britain until Wednesday, while a total of 174 racing stables have been placed in lockdown.

Tony Hockley, chairman of the New Forest Commoners, said: “This is a good opportunity to remind people not to feed the ponies and to keep some distance from the animals.”

Mr Hockley said horse riders bringing in animals from outside the forest created the biggest risk of infection, but added that no special measures had been put in place.

Last week it was announced that all race meetings have been cancelled in Britain until Wednesday - at the earliest - after six cases of the virus emerged towards the end of the week.

Hunting in the New Forest has also been suspended, with the New Forest Hounds (NFH) cancelling an event on Saturday and another tomorrow.

NFH spokesperson, Graham Ferris, insisted there were no cases of equine flu in or near the New Forest, but the decision was taken because it was the “responsible thing to do”.

Equine flu is similar to the human version, with infected animals being hit by coughing, runny noses and feeling run down.

The outbreak is centred on the Cheshire stables of Grand National-winning trainer Donald McCain.