A revolutionary sustainable breeding plan may save the Suffolk punch horse – listed as “critically endangered” by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust – from extinction.

The Animal Health Trust (AHT) and the Suffolk Horse Society (SHS) are developing a project to enable Suffolk horse breeders to minimise the risk of genetic problems, by ascertaining the level of genetic diversity in the UK Suffolk horse population and determining whether current breeding practices are sustainable. The results will enable evaluation of new breeding strategies and their impact on the preservation of genetic diversity in the Suffolk horse.

The small size of the Suffolk Punch population means there will be an eventual reduction in genetic diversity, which might lead to health problems. In 2008, there were less than 300 breeding horses, all of which could be traced back to one horse from 1768.

Sarah Blott, one of the AHT scientists leading the project, said: “The latest technologies will be employed in understanding present levels of genetic diversity and in developing the best possible breeding strategies for the future. Our local breeds are part of our history and culture, it is important to preserve them for future generations. The Suffolk horse is one of England’s most ancient breeds but is now much less numerous than it used to be. As a rare breed it is vulnerable and our project aims to help breeders make the best use of genetic knowledge in their quest to conserve the breed.”

Phase one is underway, and information on current levels of genetic diversity will be used to predict the success and sustainability of breeding practices. Computer modelling will demonstrate the outcome of various strategies and the possible risks to health and fertility.

Working together, the SHS and AHT want to assist breeders in taking a proactive and positive approach to ensuring the long-term future of the breed.

Dr Blott added: “We want to make sure that the Suffolk horse will be around for another few hundred years to come.”

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