Tom Potter and Richard Cornwell
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Numbers of Suffolk’s beloved heavy horse breed have gone from a handful to hundreds in the last 50 years, latest figures show.
In the 1960s the Suffolk Punch was under very real threat, with just nine in existence despite thousands helping to power pre-war Britain’s agricultural industry.
Still critically endangered, the road to rescue continues for champions of the oldest breed of heavy horse in Britain and an icon of rural Suffolk life.
The number of registered breeding females remains less than 300, but experts say the total is “holding steady” compared with the 11 other endangered horse breeds, all of which are seeing numbers declining steeply.
By the start of this year, Suffolk Horse Society records showed it had issued equine passports for 80 males, 290 females and 146 geldings – a total of 516 horses across the UK, including 20 registered licensed stallions – with four more being inspected for licence this month.
The society’s administrative secretary, Amanda Hillier, said there will always be a degree of variance as data is dependent on owners providing information about their own horses.
She said there are a number of Suffolk studs in the country, the largest being the Holbeache stud in Worcestershire, where they have 35 Suffolks, including five registered licensed stallions.
Meanwhile, the Suffolk Punch Trust, in Hollesley, is currently home to 17 horses, with an average of four new arrivals born annually, and a total of six mares already ‘in foal’ this year – four belonging to the trust and two visiting.
Five-year-old Colony Vee is not having a foal this year, so the decision was taken to train her as a riding horse, with head groom Jemma Martin working hard over the winter months breaking her to saddle.
Local vet and trust chairman Philip Ryder-Davies said: “It would be nice to see numbers go up dramatically but the situation is still very satisfactory.
“It is really important for us to maintain the breed standard. In the last four or five years the breed standard has really gone up. The people involved are desperately keen.”
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust’s conservation officer, Claire Barber, said that the Punch was by no means safe, despite numbers “holding steady”, and that one of the biggest problems was the cost of looking after a heavy horse, many of which are cared for today by owners who simply love the breed.
The cost of supporting a mare through pregnancy can be around £4,000 and selling a foal is not easy.
Ms Barber said: “Those who own Suffolks are exceptionally dedicated, wonderful people and they deserve plenty of kudos for absorbing the costs to keep the breed going.”
The Suffolk Punch Trust reopens to the public on Friday, March 28. For more details on its work, visit suffolkpunchtrust.org
You can also keep up to date with news and information about Suffolk horses at suffolkhorsesociety.org.uk. The society runs a friends and members scheme and issues a full-colour newsletter twice a year for subscribers.
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