‘ WE plough the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land …’ These delightful sentiments by Keats in 1820, can still stir up wistful images of Constable country as we ooh and aah at the pulling power of the heavy horses –wowing us with both their prowess at ploughing or the genuine affection we show these genial giants of the equestrian world.
But whoa back. While not wanting to shatter the illusion in quite the same way as John Betjeman – ‘ We spray the fields and scatter the poison on the ground ’ – there is a danger that the most lovable of breeds the Suffolk Punch, is now, and I quote the Suffolk Horse Society, ‘ more endangered than the giant panda.’
Thankfully both they and the Suffolk Punch Trust are fighting an often uphill battle to save a breed which dates back to at least the sixteenth century: indeed all of the 430-450 British registered Suffolks with 34 foals born last year can trace their male lines back to one stallion, a horse called Crisp’s Horse of Ufford who was foaled in 1768.
You can now add at least one more. A foal, a filly as planned, was born this summer using sex sorted sperm to determine the gender. ‘ The challenges have been great and many,’ said Tullis Matson, owner and managing director of Stallion AI Services of Whitchurch, Shropshire. ‘But watching the birth of this beautiful, healthy filly foal was a truly magical experience, and fantastic news for all rare breeds.’
Dr Gareth Starbuck, head of animal and equine sciences at Nottingham Trent University, which owns Ruby the mare involved, likewise hailed the birth as ‘a major step towards securing the future of the Suffolk and other rare animal breeds.’ The stallion, Iggy, is owned by Mike Clarke of Holbeache Farm Suffolk described by Adam Henson on the BBC Countryfile programme as having ‘ a tribe of Suffolks’.
Joining the breed on the Critical Watchlist of registered breeding females (fewer than 300) drawn up by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust are the Cleveland Bay, the Dales Pony, Eriskay Pony and the Hackney Horse and Pony. Endangered (300 to 500) are the Dartmoor and Exmoor ponies. Even the Clydesdale is rated vulnerable, placed in the 500 to 900 category alongside the Fell and Highland ponies. This leaves the Shire horse at risk (900 to 1500)and and the New Forest Pony at 1500 to 3000. All rather a gloomy picture from the high peak of the horse-drawn world of the 1880s when some three million-plus were at work in agriculture, forestry, transport and the ministry.
Today the working horse population has plummeted, their possible extinction saved only by a handful of enthusiasts, including members of The British Ridden Heavy Horse Society. Heavy horse holidays in Cumbria, Lancashire and Scotland also help as does the use of the heavies in land and conservation projects, with the more agile Dales and Fell ponies pulling their weight, literally, in forestry work. In a feature in the British Horse, the magazine of the British Horse Society, Christopher Price, chief executive of the RBST, believes that if the benefits provided by endangered breeds cannot be conserved by market measures alone, the government should step in.
‘No-one,’ he said, ‘ sees anything unusual about government intervening to help save historic buildings, and they need to be doing the same for our equines… We’ve got be working in a much more collective way if we’re going to prevent the decline of these much-loved horses and ponies.’
Ploughing matches at least provide a powerful whiff of nostalgia with the horses, done up to the nines in brass and multi-coloured ribbons, easily stealing the show, first strutting their stuff in the show ring – not just in hand but proving their growing popularity for being ridden too – before taking part in the keenly contested ploughing contests. My favourite is at Shoreham Kent,set amid a timeless valley setting of a farm fringed by woods and fluffy clouds. Ironically, high profile appearances at charity events, perhaps advertising breweries (for whom their forebears could well have been working) along with their appearances at carriage driving shows, in TV or film roles, and at weddings and funerals may well give a false impression of their number. Certainly the equestrian world would be a sadder place without them… After all Shire horses played a starring role at the London Olympics opening ceremony in 2012…
www.suffolkhorsesociety.org.uk; www.thesuffolkpunchtrust.co.uk; www.stallionai.co.uk; www. fellponysociety.org; www.clevelandbay.com; www.dalespony.org; www.eriskaypony.com; www.shire-horse.org.uk; www.blackstoneclydesdales.co.uk ;www.highlandponysociety.com; www.hackney-horse.org.uk; www.thebritishriddenheavyhorsesociety.co.uk; www.peerscloughpackhorses.co.uk; www.rbst.org.uk
NEXT TIME: Where to ride a rare breed while on holiday.