Rare Exmoor pony to have genes preserved in bid to save breed from extinction

The Exmoor Pony is a horse breed native to the British Isles, on Exmoor - golfer2015
The Exmoor Pony is a horse breed native to the British Isles, on Exmoor - golfer2015

Catching sight of a pony herd on Exmoor is a rare treat enjoyed by lucky visitors - and one that could be under threat from climate change and a narrowing gene pool.

But plans for a new "pony ark" are underway to safeguard one of Britain's most threatened native horse breeds from future extinction.

The Exmoor pony has adapted for living freely on the wilds of the moor, with a sharp intelligence, sturdy build, hard feet and thick coat and tail to keep it warm and allow rain to run off.

Herds of semi-feral ponies now live on the moor all year round, monitored by farmers who round up and inspect them every October.

There are just 4,000 Exmoor ponies around the world, and only 600 of those make up the breeding population, leading to fears of inbreeding and disease if genetic diversity is not preserved, the Exmoor Pony Society said.

There are just 4,000 Exmoor ponies left around the world - Goldfinch4ever
There are just 4,000 Exmoor ponies left around the world - Goldfinch4ever

Numbers crashed to just 50 registered ponies in the aftermath of the Second World War, narrowing the gene pool and putting the species at greater risk of these problems.

Under plans proposed by the Society, semen samples from 25 stallions will be cryopreserved in a "pony ark" in a bid to secure the future of the breed. Ideally embryos should also be stored, but equine embryo preservation still faces technical problems.

Cryopreservation is an established method of preserving material from plant and animal species in case they are lost in the wild.

Sue Baker, an ecologist who has a doctorate in the study of the breed, and who is part of a scientific advisory panel working with the Society, said: "With very rare breeds, it's a totally conceivable situation that something might happen in the future that could be catastrophic.

"But if you have in cryogenic storage a good representation of the genetics of your breed, then you can potentially restore it."

The breed could be threatened by an economic downturn leading to a fall in demand for foals, which leads to less breeding and therefore fewer animals to breed from, as well as from the unpredictable effects of climate change on the pony's upland habitat, she said.

The Society can fund half the recommended 25 stallion samples but will seek donations to fund the rest.

The first samples could be taken as soon as this autumn, with a campaign to fund the gene bank set to launch in the coming weeks.

Earlier this year the Society and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust completed the first genomic analysis of the Exmoor pony, which will help identify future health risks and help manage its genetic diversity.

There is renewed demand for ponies from rewilding projects, where they can be used for "conservation grazing" to stop naturally scrubby landscapes from becoming overgrown.

Christopher Price, chief executive of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, said: "Sterling work has been taking place for many years to increase the numbers of Exmoor Ponies, both through breeding off the moor as well as efforts to grow the herds of semi-feral ponies still running on the moor.

"However the breed’s genetic pool is small and it remains one of the most endangered of our native equine breeds, categorised as a Priority breed on the RBST Watchlist.

"Collecting and storing genetic material to support genetic diversity and to retain genetics that might otherwise be lost is a really important tool in the conservation of rare breeds, and the project to establish the Exmoor Pony Ark will be a valued complement to RBST’s National Gene Bank for our rare native livestock and equine breeds.

"The pioneering genomic analysis of the Exmoor Pony breed that we completed earlier this year alongside the Exmoor National Park Authority and the Exmoor Pony Society, with generous support and assistance from the University of Nottingham and local individuals, means that we can now see the breed’s whole genetic picture for the first time.

"As a result we have much more data to steer the best selection of genetic material for both breeding and storage, which will be invaluable to the Ark project and to all the wider work going into ensuring a strong future for this iconic and much-loved rare native pony."