A different kind of census is taking place this month in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The census is part of an effort to find out how many Newfoundland ponies are still in the province. Rare Breeds Canada has classified the Newfoundland Pony as critically endangered.

In the 1970s, there were about 12,000 ponies. But with fewer people using the animals for farming — and more municipal restrictions on livestock — most people gave up their ponies and sent them to new homes on the mainland. Many didn't realize that the ponies would eventually wind up as meat.

By the late 1980s, the number of Newfoundland ponies dropped to about a hundred. In 1997, the provincial government enacted legislation that protected the pony as a Heritage Animal and designated the Newfoundland Pony Society as the public group responsible for registering, promoting and protecting the breed.

Ponies have been here for generations

Newfoundand ponies have been a part of Kevin Dawson's family for generations – their bloodlines tracing back to different horses from the British Isles.

But time and the province's tough climate created the sturdy and unique Newfoundland breed.

Dawson said the animals are obedient, social and strong.

"Years ago, we did use them for hauling wood, plowing grounds, the traditional way," said Dawson. "Other than that, they're just like pets really."

Joelle Carey is conducting the census for the Newfoundland Pony Society. She's finding more ponies than expected, but added it's just not enough.

"The numbers are very low," said Carey. "There's a fear that if we don't get breeding programs in place, and if we don't find new stallions and mares that are able to have foals, that we could lose our pony."

Carey said in some cases, DNA tests will be used to verify the breed. The animals vary in size, from compact to almost as tall as some horses.

Some hope among pony riders

The popularity of Newfoundland ponies among riders is offering the animal some hope. In fact, the larger of the breed can easily support adults.

Peter Halley is a member of the group trying to save the Newfoundland Pony. He acknowledges ponies are being bred elsewhere in Canada - but the province has an unpaid debt to the animals by keeping the native population flourishing.

"Without these ponies for the last 300 years, I don't think Newfoundland would be the same place," said Halley. "You know, they were vital to our survival."

Current estimates indicate there are 400 ponies in the province.

The census will continue until the end of March.