Less than ten years to save the critically endangered Suffolk Punch
We have less than 10 years to save the iconic Suffolk Punch horse - as experts predict the critically endangered breed could become extinct by 2027.
With only 80 viable breeding females left in the UK, the Rare Breed Survival Trust (RBST) has placed the Suffolk horse as number three on its list of farm breeds most likely to die out.
Desperate measures are being taken to preserve the animal’s future, including collecting genetic samples from stallions across the globe to ensure enough variance survives to kickstart the breed if traditional methods fail.
Janie Barbiaux, secretary of the Suffolk Horse Society, said: “We have had some bad years of breeding recently where mares haven’t been going to stud and not as many foals were born.
“If you calculate it, the Suffolk Horse would be extinct by 2027.
“One reason there has been less breeding is there’s a large cost to it.
“There hasn’t been much demand for Suffolk Punches in the past but that demand is now growing. Sadly if something becomes rarer people tend to want it. The problem is we’ve still got to breed them and that can be difficult.
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“And we have lost some of the older breeders and there isn’t much interest in the youngsters coming through.”
The first Suffolk Horse Stud Book, published in 1880, showed there were more than 1,400 stallions and 1,124 mares registered in the UK, the majority in East Anglia.
The war years saw a peak with 6,000 new Punches registered.
But the number has dwindled in the years since as farm machinery has taken its place. Now just a few hundred remain.
Nigel Oakley, of Rede Hall Farm near Bury St Edmunds who owns eight of the horses himself, said people in Suffolk often do not realise quite how endangered the animal is as it plays such an important role as a Suffolk icon.
He said “It is a category one critically endangered animal - they are in a muddle, there’s no doubt about it.
“But a lot of people in Suffolk don’t realise how rare it is - you always see them at the Suffolk Show and at displays.
“My generation have done all they can but we owe it to future generations to keep our heritage alive - whether its Framlingham Castle or the Suffolk Horse.”
Tom Beeston, CEO of the RBST, said it is important to build the population in other places other than Suffolk.
He said: “There only 80 that are able to breed or likely to be bred from.
“We are now collecting specimens for a gene bank, we are desperate to get as many stallions samples as we can. Then we can create them in the future like they do in Jurassic Park.
“With cattle we collect embryos so we can get those frozen but it can cost up to £10,000 per horse to collect.
“The other thing we are doing is looking for other populations further afield, such as America.
“This is important as if they were all in the one area and there was a disease outbreak then you have a problem.
“We have got an uphill battle but have a lot of friends around us.”
Janie Barbiaux, secretary of the Suffolk Horse Society, said if the rare breed were to be saved it would have to reinvent itself.
“What we are trying to now is promote their versatility,” she said.
“You will not see 50 horses ploughing the fields around Eyke anymore but they are still used for heritage smallholdings.
“It will never replace your John Deere tractor but the Suffolk can be used in the working environment on smaller farms.
“They are very environmentally friendly and can work where the land may be damaged by machinery.
“They are also used in shows and demonstrations and a lot of members use them for weddings,
“Something else that is becoming popular is ladies carts - two-wheeled carts from America - and Suffolks are becoming very popular for pulling those.
“We are also getting more people riding them.
“But encouraging youngsters is the big mission. It is about passing of the knowledge from the older horsemen. They have to do some reinvention - if they can come through that all the better.
“It is a man-made beast and was bred for ploughing heavy, clay soil. “We have to remember what it was for originally but it has to be used for other purposes now.”
The Suffolk Horse Society relies on membership and donations to support its breeding and promotion of the Suffolk Horse.
For more information see www.suffolkhorsesociety.org.uk