The stunning Suffolk Punch is under threat, but thanks to modern technology the future for the breed may not be so bleak after all
It’s impossible not to be impressed and enchanted by the heavy horse breeds of Britain. There’s the mighty Shire with its trademark silky leg featherings; the elegant and showy Clydesdale; and the classic coach-horse, the Cleveland Bay. Together they earned their living pulling ploughs, canal barges, brewery drays or carriages, carrying wheat to the mill, leading armies into battle and hauling artillery to the front line.
But of all our magnificent heavy horses, it’s the Suffolk Punch that seems to have captured the public’s imagination most and which has a particular place in my heart. Like so many of our traditional farm livestock, its name tells you all you need to know about the breed; Suffolk is the home county of this docile, dependable draught horse, and
Punch comes from its solid, strong appearance. You could even say it packs a punch visually and physically. The breed used to be widely known as the Suffolk Sorrel and even that old name is wonderfully descriptive; Sorrel is an ancient word for brown and, to this day, the colour of every purebred Suffolk is one of seven different shades of chesnut (and that’s not a spelling mistake – when referring to the Suffolk Punch, chestnut is always spelt with only one ‘t’).
But despite its long, noble history and its undisputed appeal, the Suffolk is at serious risk of extinction. Once a fixture in the fields of East Anglia and a familiar sight throughout the country, the march of mechanised farming over the last 100 years has seen their numbers dwindle. There are currently fewer than 80 breeding mares in the UK and across the entire globe that number is below
300. The future of the Suffolk depends on having a healthy population of productive females to keep the breed going and it would be devastating to think we could so easily lose this living link to our farming forebears.
So I was heartened to hear how new technology and 21st century innovation are giving new hope. Recently a Suffolk filly foal was born using sex-sorted equine sperm to determine the gender; in other words, instead of relying on chance the gender was established in a laboratory from donor semen and artificially inseminated. This involves using precision equipment to establish the difference in DNA content between X- and Y-bearing spermatozoa. It’s incredibly specialised work and the first time the technique has been used with a rare breed anywhere in the world. It’s early days, but since the news broke it’s been confirmed that a second Suffolk mare is pregnant in the same way. As a Suffolk Punch owner myself and a lifelong champion of Britain’s rare breeds, I’m excitedly keeping my fingers crossed.
ABOVE: The future for the Suffolk Punch is uncertain