The Exmoor Pony Society Gene Bank Campaign launched

The Exmoor Pony Society has launched a campaign to help secure the future of the UK’s oldest native breed. The Exmoor Pony Society Gene Bank Campaign is an innovative initiative that will create an Exmoor pony gene bank. It will cryogenically preserve genetic material that could safeguard the breed against future disasters.

With £50,000 already raised and committed, the first stallion is set to donate semen to the gene bank this month (March 2023). You can donate – see the end of this post for details.

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Nigel Hill, Chairman of the Exmoor Pony Society, said: “Instrumental in the launch will be the oversight of our recently announced Scientific Advisory Panel, which will lead on genetic research and innovation. The panel is comprised of Exmoor pony experts from the fields of genetics, ecology and veterinary science, which ensures we are well placed to take advantage of developments in equine genetic conservation.”

Elsinore Alan Partridge – ‘Q’ as he is known at home – will be the first stallion to have genetic material cryogenically frozen and stored.

Q - Elsinore Alan Partridge
Q – Elsinore Alan Partridge – photographed by Michael Dewhurst

Q is a 15-year old multi-show winning registered Exmoor pony. His stable name is simply Q, after the Star Trek character of the same name, and he has sired 12 ponies in the stud book. Q is based at the Suffolk stud owned by mother and daughter breeders Sandy Wooderson and Madeline Haynes.

“We were delighted to be asked to take part in the Gene Bank Campaign,” said Sandy. “We bought Q as a yearling and he really kicked off our love of the breed and our stud. At the age of six he had qualified for the Horse of the Year Show under saddle and has also sired some beautiful stock who are now also winning in the show ring. We are very proud of him!”

Madeline added: “It’s wonderful that the EPS are introducing such a forward thinking initiative, which is paramount for protection of this rare breed. Learning from history, a catastrophe really could happen. We’re proud to be involved and contribute to protecting this precious native pony that faces the real life possibility of extinction, as well as safe guarding Q’s rare genetic bloodline”.

“In a way, it’s ironic naming him Q after the character in Star Trek, who is an omnipotent and immortal being. The Exmoor pony is far from immortal, but Q’s contribution feels like they now could be!” said Sandy. “I hope other equine breed societies are able to follow suit.”

The semen donated by Q and other stallions in coming months will be owned by the Exmoor Pony Society, which will co-ordinate the collection and preservation logistics.

Gene Bank Project will safeguard a fragile future

The Exmoor pony gene pool is numerically small with only 600 (15%) of the total population actively breeding; which makes the breed extremely vulnerable. Genetic variation within the gene pool is limited because the population crashed to just 50 individuals during World War II, and many bloodlines then and subsequently were lost.

Cryopreservation – the freezing and storage of genetic material – is now an established strategy for ensuring that, if decimated, a viable population can be restored, or a disappearing bloodline saved. The minimum requirement is for semen samples from 25 stallions, representing as much of the breed’s genetic variation as possible, to be held in long-term storage at two separate locations.

Eight embryos should also be in a breed’s gene bank, but there are currently still technical issues to overcome in equine embryo preservation.

Ecologist Sue Baker, a member of the Exmoor Pony Society’s Scientific Advisory Panel, said: “Currently semen from only six Exmoor stallions is stored in the National Livestock Gene Bank but only three of these have sufficient doses.

“In order to reach the minimum quantity to provide breed ‘catastrophe insurance’, ideally 22 additional stallions need to contribute 50 doses each. The primary aim of the project is to achieve this within two to three years.

“We need to commit £100,000 to the project to support the costly collection of genetic material and its cryopreservation. The Exmoor Pony Society is part-funding this, to get the project off to the best start, by contributing £50,000. We are looking to raise the additional money through fundraising, legacies and donations.”

The new Scientific Advisory Panel, which has experience in sample design and understands the structure of the Exmoor population, will take on the major task of selecting suitable stallions to represent the variation within the breed.

The Exmoor Pony Society seeks donations towards the Gene Bank Campaign. You can donate here.