Pulling through

Berkshire Life - - PROMOTION -

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

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