Magic on four legs: The stunning Suffolk Punch horses of Britain are nearing extinction due to an inadequate number of fillies being produced, which is why Lilly Rose’s birth is so momentous.
Lilly Rose, a beautiful filly, is an uncommon sight, more so than a huge panda or a black rhino, but she gives hope to the oldest native breed of draught horse in Britain.
Lilly Rose, a Suffolk Punch, often called the Suffolk Sorrel or just the Suffolk Horse, was born at the Dorset Heavy Horse Centre earlier this month. Many people believe that the Suffolk Punch is in danger of becoming extinct.
Only 73 breeding mares and 300 to 400 animals remain in the UK, making this species “critically endangered.” The urgency of the situation is so extreme that this week a renowned geneticist was summoned to assist in resolving a reproductive crisis that may take radical measures, including gene modification, to preserve the Suffolk Punch.
These horses, which are usually coloured “chesnut,” have been loyal to their country for five hundred years. They have hauled artillery in two World Wars, pulled ploughs through the dark muck of East Anglia, and dragged non-motorized vehicles. They persevered in sustaining Britain. It’s time to repay the kindness now.
The Suffolk Punch has a number of reproductive issues, chief among them being stallions’ retained testicles and certain mares’ propensity for undeveloped ovaries.
Even more concerning are the latest statistics provided by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, which indicate that between 2014 and 2016, a mere 33 fillies were born—less than half the total number of males.
The reason for the low birth rate of female Suffolk Punches remains unknown. However, a “clear swing” towards males has been established by Dr. Sarah Blott, a geneticist at Nottingham University who has been collecting DNA samples from the breed.
She says that it may be essential to undergo expensive reproductive therapy, such as separating sperm carrying the masculine Y chromosome from ‘female’ sperm carrying the X chromosome.
Not everyone concurs. The three years of low female birth counts, according to Tom Beeston, CEO of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, were “utterly desperate,” but “all down to bad luck.”
Employees at THE Suffolk Punch Trust, a stud farm with eighteen of the animals located close to Woodbridge in Suffolk, lean towards agreeing with him.
They also attributed the lack of fillies to chance. Due to the high expense of rearing a single foal (including feed, veterinary bills, and mare fees), the charity was unable to support treatments like IVF, artificial insemination, or surrogacy using implanted embryos.
Additionally, they have Achilles on their side. Under his shining chesnut coat, the stallion’s neck muscles ripple, and when he moves, his protruding hindquarters swing in a graceful arc.
With almost 40 progeny and a sexual life that would make a gigolo blush, he is an incredible creature and has been named a Supreme Champion several times. He is the definition of dignified manhood, standing at about eighteen hands tall and weighing over a tonne. Everything about him is massive.
“When our horses produce a filly, we get excited,” the stud manager, Tracey Pettitt, tells me. But Achilles shoots without hesitation! Producing an equal number of colts and fillies comes naturally to him.
In fact, Colony Dorothy, a filly who is two months old and already as tall as me when I meet her and her mother in the meadows, is the only foal to be born at Woodbridge this year. It is hoped that she will join the breeding scheme in four years.
When mares are brought to this particular area of Suffolk for Achilles’ services, he has a high “hit rate.” One whiff of an amenable mare at a recent show had him rearing up for action and on the verge of yanking Tracey’s arm out of its socket.
Of all cattle breeds, the Suffolk Punch has the longest lineage, dating back to a single stallion owned by Thomas Crisp of Ufford in 1768.
It has been a constant in East Anglia’s fields for ages. “His colour is bright chesnut — like a tongue of fire against black field furrows,” as one horse writer described it.
Tens of thousands of them laboured in the fields at the beginning of the 20th century, their sleek fetlocks meant to prevent clotting with dirt and their steady footing letting them weave between rows of sugar beetroot.
During World War I, thousands of Suffolk Punches lost their lives in combat; nevertheless, over time, their numbers gradually increased until the 1960s, when tractor usage extended widely.
One Punch can till an acre in a day, but a tractor can quickly cover fifty. After many of them were sent to the abattoir, they became the rarest horses in Britain in a matter of decades. The pool of genes is vanishingly tiny now.
According to Tom Beeston, “we need to get everyone who has a mare breeding before the population becomes too low to sustain.” However, additional issues exist. Tracey remarks, “We can breed them until we’re blue in the face, but someone has to want them.”
These are doers, and they need a mission. It is not their destiny to frolic in fields, hurling their gorgeous manes and stomping on wild flowers. Yet once they reach maturity, keeping them costs almost nothing.
Tracey states, “They’ll survive on air and straw.” They need very little upkeep. Naturally, they will want a few oats unless they are exerting themselves.
As long as you have a step ladder and the courage to handle a large horse, Tracey maintains that they are nice to ride and have great temperaments. They also don’t always fling their weight about.
“It’s surprisingly cosy, but once they get going, there’s a tonne of wildlife to reel in.”
Fans of the Suffolk Punch have been working very hard in recent years to draw attention to them and create a desire among people to buy them.
Though they may not have taken off, Bury St Edmunds’ “park-and-ride” programme offered by Suffolk Punch is increasingly being utilised for conservation efforts.
In an attempt to increase their visibility, they have begun appearing on television at county fairs and the Horse of the Year Show. Better yet, individuals are purchasing them to ride, enrolling in dressage courses, A Suffolk Punch placed third in the show jumping competition at the Woodbridge Show the previous year. Envision the thud as it touched down.
Remaining at the Suffolk Punch Trust, we observe the horses as they snort, chew, and swish.
Tracey says, “How would we feel if these died out?” “How are we going to live with ourselves?”
Yes, in fact.