The Clock is ticking … … … Part 2

A few points to keep in mind whilst reading this article

Before all else we would like to make it clear that the debt owed to the breeders and trainers who took the breed forward from the grim days of the 1950’s and 1960’s is immense. Their dedication, effort and energy to breed, train, work, exhibit and explain the importance of this unique breed is why we still have a Suffolk Punch breed today.

It might be helpful to reread Part 1 of this article as well as the 2009 article Running out of time.

All italics in quoted texts are from Suffolk Punch Australia.

 Summary:

In the UK, the Suffolk Punch breed of horse is in dire trouble. There are ongoing and worsening hereditary problems associated with too close breeding within a tiny population. The current breeding practises are focussed for commercial gain rather than conservation. The question must be asked: is the Suffolk Horse Society failing to pursue its remit in terms of saving the Suffolk Punch?

A new best practise breeding programme is needed. All information regarding the genetics of the breed should be made freely available. All Horses that meet the genetic requirements for the breed in the UK should be registered with the Suffolk Horse Society, regardless of country of origin or lineage.

The Purity of the Breed

The Suffolk Horse Society defines its Objectives in its report to the Charities Commission, and usually includes the same material in the Preface to its yearly Stud Books:

Objective: To maintain the purity of the breed known as the Suffolk Horse and to promote the breeding of the same. The Suffolk breed of heavy horse is a livestock animal indigenous to the United Kingdom that has been developed and refined over many generations through careful selection to possess a set of specific inherited characteristics. It is recognised as a critical category rare breed by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust acting as an independent authority basing its definition on published conservation criteria. The continuity and prevention of extinction of the Suffolk as a breed conforms to the first principle of public benefit, that the benefit must be identifiable, because not only is the Suffolk a manifestation of a rural cultural heritage but also it constitutes a genetic reservoir and as such is included in the DEFRA conservation strategy for UK Farm Animal Genetic Resources.

The Society identifies two major areas:

  • maintaining the purity of the breed and
  • maintaining a genetic reservoir of the breed, that adheres to the DEFRA conservation strategy

Purity is a word we all know and feel we understand: but do we?

Among the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word ‘Purity’ are:

The condition or state of being physically pure; the quality of being unmixed, unadulterated, or untainted;

The state or quality of being free from extraneous or foreign elements, or from outside influence; the state of being unadulterated or refined; clarity.

Australia’s national dictionary – The Macquarie Dictionary offers:

the condition or quality of being pure; freedom from extraneous matter or from anything that debases or contaminates: the purity of drinking water.

freedom from any admixture or modifying addition.

freedom from foreign or inappropriate elements; careful correctness: purity of language.

A summary of those definitions include freedom from any kind of taint coming from outside.

But what if the taint afflicting purity comes from within?

Maintaining the Purity

In the Summer 2017 edition of the Suffolk Horse Magazine, there is a synopsis by Council Member George Paul of a presentation by Dr Sarah Blott at a seminar held at Rossdale & Partners, Newmarket, 21 March 2017, entitled Identification of Genes for Inherited Disease.

This relates to what the President of the Suffolk Horse Society refers to as “a genetic issue.” In her introduction President Susan Wager states:

A number of years ago it came to the attention of the society that we have a genetic issue within the breed regarding sub fertility. Investigations were carried out and findings reported back to the society.

Time has moved on and again we are finding owners reporting similar concern.

Dr Sarah Blott … gave a very informative talk … on the topic of Gonadal Hypoplasia (GHP) which is our concern…

A synopsis of the talk is printed below to enable numbers to understand the potential genetic issue facing the Suffolk Breed.

After summarizing genetic approaches including analysis of DNA, George Paul reports:

…the genes of affected animals are compared with those of normal animals. If all affected animals have a different version of the gene to all normal animals, that identifies the gene causing the problem. The DNA of all animals in that population can then be analysed to determine which animals are normal and which may be carriers.

In Suffolk Horses the condition known as gonadal hypoplasia (GHP), which manifests as underdeveloped ovaries in mares, and undescended or abnormally small testicles in stallions leading to infertility, may be caused by a recessive gene, but this has not yet been identified.

 

The Curious Case of Stallion Z – Suffolk Horse Breeding Investigation August 1999

This report by veterinary surgeon Philip Ryder-Davies, MB, BS, BVSc., MRCVS, was presented at the Spring Seminar following the Annual General Meeting of the Suffolk Horse Society 2001. Its preamble says:

During the last few years there has been a considerable amount of gossip about alleged infertility in the Suffolk breed, and there has been specific criticism of the progeny of the stallion Z. … we have been concerned about what appeared to be a reduced degree of success in treating Suffolk mares with breeding problems in comparison with mares of other breeds.

The report goes on to outline approaches to researching the problem.

There were two investigations, the first into the general situation as regards fertility in the breed, and the second into the progeny of Z. There was a further possibility to be considered as the alleged infertility in the breed might have been a factor of a genetic problem affecting breeding efficiency. 

… also important to be able to understand whether the possible poor reproductive performance of the Suffolk mares was confined to mares by Z. It may have been the case that mares by Z with what appeared to be normal reproductive tracts had other problems not revealed by clinical examination but which lowered fertility.

… a sample of mares, not all by Z, was selected to be examined … in detail. Each mare was selected for different clinical reasons; the thinking was that each of these might have helped to decide upon the most useful treatment for the conditions each one represented.

A summary of the findings is tabulated in Table 2.1 below. Each animal was given a letter to protect the confidentiality of both owner and animal. The three control mares, A, D, and F are excluded from this table as they were not by Z, and did not appear to display signs of gonadal hypoplasia.

Table 2.1: Progeny of Stallion Z with Hypoplastic Ovaries, and difficulty getting in foal together with One grandson
Progeny by Z

Not able to breed

Able to breed

Comment

1 (B) Mare by Z History of 2 years inability to conceive and fluid collection in uterus. Covered two weeks before examination and had been given multiple injections with Oxytocin at time of covering. Scan showed her to be in foal.

Blood sampled, no chromosomal abnormalities

No follow up information to indicate if foal carried to live birth, nor subsequent breed history.
2 (C) Mare by Z Hypoplastic ovaries (very small), slight sign of activity, normal sized uterus. Blood sample = abnormal sex chromosome pattern (extra piece of X chromosome material in 5% of her cells) Not able to breed
3 (E) mare Full sister to C. Hypoplastic ovaries but otherwise normal reproductive tract. This mare will not be able to breed
4 (G) Mare Normal ovaries but not covered in 1999 No further information on subsequent breeding history, or if she had foaled previously

 

5 (H) Filly Filly by Z and thoroughbred mare, normal ovaries but not covered in 1999 No further information on subsequent breeding
6 (I) Mare` Had had one foal, has normal ovaries. Covered the post foaling year but failed to get in foal. Uterus not investigated No further information on subsequent breeding. No information if blood sampled.
7 (J) Mare Previously bred well, but failed to get in foal in 1998. Multiple injections of Oxytocin, scanned and found to be in foal in 1999 No follow up information to indicate if foal carried to live birth, nor subsequent breed history

 

8 (K) Filly Ovaries at the smaller end of normal, covered and in foal No follow up information to indicate if foal carried to live birth, nor subsequent breed history
9 (L) Mare Ovaries similar to (K), but had a follicle in one ovary. Covered once and in foal No follow up information to indicate if foal carried to live birth, nor subsequent breed history
10 (M)Mare Ovaries similar to (K) and (L) but no covering in 1999

 

No follow up information
11 (N)Mare Hypoplastic ovaries, blood tested and chromosome pattern normal Not able to breed
12 (O)Mare Owner refused to allow examination
13 (P) Mare A granddaughter to Z

Normal ovaries, normal chromosome pattern but not covered in 1999

No follow up information
14 (Q) Colt Blood sampled and normal chromosome pattern. Semen and reproductive tract normal
15 (R) Colt Blood sampled and normal chromosome pattern. Semen and reproductive tract normal
16 (S) Grandson of Z Semen and reproductive tract normal

Table compiled from Breeding Investigation Report, prepared by Philip Ryder-Davies, MB., BS., BVSc., MRCVS in August 1999, and presented to the Suffolk Horse Society at the Spring Seminar following the Annual General Meeting 2001

Some points to consider
  • The problem of gonadal hypoplasia was first encountered approximately 20 years ago.

The final report prepared in August 1999 mentions in its first sentence

during the last few years there has been a considerable amount of gossip about alleged infertility in the Suffolk breed … specific criticism of the progeny of the stallion Z.

The final report was presented to the wider membership in 2001, almost two years after completion. The word ‘few’ is an inexact amount that typically means from three to five, though it could be stretched for a few more. Thus this problem was likely to have been known about by a select few since the early 1990s.

It is not clear what has happened since. Was the UK Suffolk herd continually monitored? Were no horses identified with the condition, until, “Time has moved on and again we are finding owners reporting similar concerns”?

  • Did the progeny (both male and female) of stallion Z continue to be genetically monitored?

For example, in Table 2.1 above, females 8, 9 and 10 had ovaries “at the smaller end of normal.” Two of these were in foal. Did they produce live progeny? Have these progeny gone on to breed?

Is it known if any of the Suffolk Horse Mares Inventory as at 10 August 2016 have been tested for gonadal hypoplasia – some 72 estimated pedigree registered breeding females in 2015? (See Table 3, The Clock is Ticking … Part 1)

And some more
  • Have any problems emerged on the male line?
  • How many cases of “undescended or abnormally small testicles in stallions” have been recorded since 1999
  • How many owners are reporting similar concerns now?
  • How many owners reported similar concerns since 1999?
  • Are there any further indicators of genetic problems emerging in addition to gonadal hypoplasia ?
  • Did gonadal hypoplasia form part of the original Animal Health Trust Suffolk Horse Genetic Study which was reported as beginning in 2009, proposed to have the final report by the end of 2010, but apparently was not received by the Suffolk Horse Society until the end of 2013?
  • What was the cause of the delay in submission of the final report – due at the end of 2010 but not received until three years later at the end of 2013?
  • Why did the Suffolk Horse Society, in particular the Breeding Committee appear so sanguine, taking so long to re-examine this area?

What is striking in reading through the reports to the UK Charities Commission is how little sense of urgency there appears to be regarding any genetic difficulties – perceived or potential. This is not just one year or two, but spread over from 2012 to 2016 (the latest report). If the time from 2009 is added in – for the genetic research announced in that year – we are looking at 8 years. If we go back to 1999 and the report on Stallion Z then there are 18 years of delays and inaction, as the following excerpts from 2012-2016 display.

2012-2016 Excerpts from the Suffolk Horse Society yearly reports to the UK Charities Commission

In the 2012 report:

The Society continued to co-operate with the genetic study being conducted by the Animal Health Trust. The results and implications for the breed are now likely to be available in 2013.

In the 2013 Report:

An initial report from the Animal Health Trust of its Suffolk genetic study was received in the autumn. The Society plans to co-operate further with the Animal Health Trust in 2014 to examine the implications for the breed enshrined in the report.

 

Was this report ever made available to the general membership of the Suffolk Horse Society – and if not, why not?

In the 2014 Report:

The equine quantitative geneticist who produced the primary report from the Animal Health Trust on the genetic makeup of the current population of Suffolk horses in the UK has a new university post as Associate Professor of Animal Breeding and Genetics. The Society approached her at the end of the year hoping to utilise her expertise in the management of inbreeding to reduce risk of inherited disease at the population level to assess, as a future strand of the stallion licensing process, the genetic contribution to the UK herd of candidate stallions.

In the 2015 Report:

The genetic study of the current population of Suffolk Horses in the UK has stalled temporarily since Dr Sarah Blott moved to Nottingham University. The Society is determined to revive this project in order that it will be able to provide breeders with information which will help them to select the most appropriate stallions to mate with their mares.

In the 2016 Report:

The genetic study of the current population of Suffolk Horses in the UK has stalled temporarily since Dr Sarah Blott moved to Nottingham University. The Society is determined to revive this project in order that it will be able to provide breeders with information which will help them to select the most appropriate stallions to mate with their mares.

Under Future Plans 2015 and 2016, there is no reference, no mention at all to any genetic analyses of the breed.

Future Plans 2015

The Society has received a substantial legacy which is detailed in the Financial Review. This added financial strength will enable the Society to implement its recently adopted Marketing Plan. The plan aims to raise the public profile of the Society with the objective of significantly increasing the Society’s membership and of encouraging more people to own and breed Suffolk Horses. The Society will promote new uses for those horses including riding and private driving in addition to the more traditional farm and forest work.

Future Plans 2016

The Society has received legacies as detailed in the Financial Review. This added financial strength will enable the Society to implement its Marketing Plan. The plan aims to raise the public profile of the Society with the objective of significantly increasing the Society’s membership and of encouraging more people to own and breed Suffolk Horses. The Society will promote new uses for those horses including riding and private driving in addition to the more traditional farm and forestry work.

Breed – what it actually means

In Chapter 3, page 16 of the publication, Farm Animal Genetic Resources in the UK it states:

It is important that we are able to define what is meant by a breed so that we can be clear on how FAnGR in the UK can be recorded and monitored, protected and sustainably used.

Simply defined, a breed can be taken to mean a specific group of animals that, through selection and breeding, have similar characteristics (including for example appearance and behaviour) that are passed on to their offspring and which distinguish them from other animals of the same species.

wikipedia.org points out:

Despite the centrality of the idea of “breeds” to animal husbandry and agriculture, no single, scientifically accepted definition of the term exists.

A breed is therefore not an objective or biologically verifiable classification but is instead a term of art amongst groups of breeders who share a consensus around what qualities make some members of a given species members of a nameable subset.

When bred together, individuals of the same breed pass on these predictable traits to their offspring, and this ability – known as “breeding true” – is a requirement for a breed.

Breeders Preferences

In some ways, a Breed is a moveable feast. Depending on breeders’ preferences, many variables can change – height, weight, usage. The Suffolk can only be chestnut, but in other heavy breeds, fashionable colours can predominate and can command high purchases prices. In the Shire horse, black with four white socks has been much sought after for many years. In the UK and Australia, the permitted colours are black, brown, bay or grey: no chestnuts, nor roans are eligible for the Stud Book. In the USA, by contrast chestnuts are permitted.

In France and the UK, Percheron horses can only be grey or black, but some Percheron Associations (Australia and USA) have a separate register in their Stud Books for chestnuts.

And as recounted in the article Running out of time

one well known breeder of the Suffolk Horse used the Shire Horse in his breeding to achieve sought-after height.

 

The development of a breed comes about because breeders selectively breed for traits and attributes which are required for the role required of the animal. In biology, a key idea is that:

structure determines function, ie the way something is arranged enables it to play its role and fulfill its job. Structure-function relations arise through the process of natural selection.

(From: http://www.sciencemusicvideos.com/ap-biology/module-1…/structure-determines-function)

In the history of breeding for draught horses, those traits needed in the fields, and later in the industrialized cities, determined their selection. Thus, the maxim Structure determines Function is turned around on itself and becomes Function Required, determines Structure.

The selectively bred Suffolk Horse that Herman Biddell described is a far cry from the type famously described by Arthur Young in the late 18th Century:

An uglier horse could not be viewed than the old type of Suffolk. It had a large coarse head with heavy ears that slouched, a great carcase and short legs and it ‘could trot no better than a cow.’ Of late years by aiming at coach horses the breed is much changed to a handsomer, lighter and more active horse.

And determined selective breeding gave the Suffolk immense advantage over other draught breeds as early as from the 1860’s. As Keith Chivers says:

…(at shows) it inaugurated strict veterinary inspects and would allow no prize to go to a horse with bad hereditary defects. Ringbone, sidebone and brittle feet, that had bid to become the scourge of the Suffolk horse, were being bred out of him, at a time when, elsewhere in the country, it was only intelligent individuals that troubled at all about such matters. The bent hind legs and weak hocks of certain families in the breed were similarly disappearing, and so were respiratory defects.

New Uses for the Suffolk Horse?

How will

The Society will promote new uses for those horses including riding and private driving in addition to the more traditional farm and forest work.

affect the breed standard to enhance horses for riding and private driving? Will they become lighter in weight, faster in action?

Surely this was not what the Suffolk Horse was bred for? We are constantly told the Suffolk was the ultimate agricultural horse, never to be put to the trot. On many farms trotting a horse while homeward bound was a sackable offence.

Here in Australia, anecdotal evidence is emerging that some heavy horses are being broken in to ride at too young an age – at two and one half years and that ringbone and sidebone are once again being seen in the judging ring of ridden heavy horses. Dr Sheila Schils asserts:

that the force on the horse’s foot upon landing from a 2-foot jump is about 3156 pounds and landing from a four-foot fence places about 4509 pounds on one foot.

(from http://www.equinew.com/jumping.htm Biomechanics of jumping by Dr Sheila Schils)

These figures are for light horses. Has anyone evaluated comparable forces for draught horses?

In the past the Suffolk was outcrossed with a light horse to produce a type known as a Hunter. In Australia, such horses were often known as a Utility Horse – one that could be ridden and driven and still help bring in the harvest if needed. It could not be said however that this horse remained a Suffolk Punch: in those days it was termed a part bred, a half draught, also sometimes called, “a vanner”. Today’s terminology includes “Sports Horse” . Other heavy horse breeds are promoting these deliberately bred horses with some commercial success.

In contrast selective breeding to favour Suffolks for riding and driving could have an adverse impact on the breed standard within the tiny population of the UK Suffolks.

Then there is the risk of genetic disease when deleterious recessive genes are piggybacked along with the desired trait via selective breeding.

Maintaining a genetic reservoir of the breed

Under Plans for 2006 (11 years ago), in the Suffolk Horse Society’s Annual Report to the UK Charities Commission, it states:

Distribution of blood sampling kits for the collection of DNA data being carried out in association with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust will be completed and the subsequent analysis of the results will allow a DNA blueprint for the breed – what makes a Suffolk a Suffolk in the UK in the 21st century.

(Suffolk Horse Society TRUSTEES’ ANNUAL Report YEAR ENDED 31 DECEMBER 2005, page 1)

Do we have a DNA blueprint for the breed? If so, is it accessible to the wider membership? And if not, why not?

On the Rare Breeds Survival Trust website page for their Genebank, they state:

A key part of RBST’s work involves collecting genetic material, this is in the form of semen and embryos. The reason for this is to safeguard the UK’s rare and native breeds of farm livestock against diminishing numbers and potential threats posed by disease outbreak our rarest breeds.

In explaining how the RBST decide on which animals to collect from they describe their approach:

There are a number of ways in which animals are selected for collection. RBST welcomes nominations of animals of all breeds on the current RBST Watchlist. We want animals collected to represent the diversity of the whole breed. When considering collecting material from a new animal, we use a kinship analysis to measure how related it is to others we have previously collected. Ideally kinship should be very low meaning the animals are as unrelated as possible.

RBST is not just collecting from show winners and those considered the best in the breed. We want the Gene Bank to represent the genetic diversity found in each breed.

In several breeds we have conducted a Geneped breed analysis which enables us to highlight the different bloodlines in a breed and select animals that represent the range of lines, both rare and common.

and

Our target is 25 unrelated collections. from each breed

So where does the Suffolk Horse Society stand with Suffolk frozen semen at the Genebank?

At the time of writing, only three stallions have had their semen frozen: at an undisclosed date – possibly deposited early in the programme – and their identity is not known. These could be elite sires, in which case the requirements for the genetic reservoir are not being met since the Breeding Committee of the Suffolk Horse Society has decided:

In regard to one of your original questions about collecting semen from 25 Stallions, the Breeding Committee do not believe this would be a realistic or practical proposal. However, as you will see from the letter attached, the SHS are intending to collect Semen for freezing to the appropriate protocol to allow shipment to New Zealand, Australia and the USA.

We will certainly keep you updated as this progresses over the Autumn.

(Personal Correspondence, email dated 23 August 2017, one of a series from Suffolk Punch Australia’s original query in April 2017)

The copy of the letter to the Rare Breeds Society of New Zealand (undated) appears to be turning down the offer of frozen semen from Capleach Jackson 8919. It doesn’t say so in many words, only acknowledges the loss of Capleach Jackson and that it:

… understands that some 58 straws of semen were taken from Capleach Jackson …

It then goes on:

The Suffolk Horse Society now intends to harvest semen from stallions standing in the UK this year. The plan will be to collect and freeze some of this to the required standards to allow export to New Zealand, Australia and the USA.

At present it is not confirmed which Stallion/Stallions we will be collecting from, but the intention is to agree this in the coming weeks. Assuming the selected Stallion/Stallions can be collected from, and the semen freezes well, we would be happy to look at donating some straws to New Zealand for your use.

In reference to your letter, we are not planning at this stage, to harvest eggs or look at embryo transfer. However the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in the UK are launching their National Gene Bank this year at a Conference in September. Part of this seminar will cover embryo collection and the SHS will be well represented at the meeting. These are topics will then require further review by the Breeding Committee over the coming months.

The Breeding Committee consists of ten members, only one of whom, to the best of our knowledge, is trained in veterinary science. There are no specialists in genetics.

These are big decisions for this Committee to make given that:

because not only is the Suffolk a manifestation of a rural cultural heritage but also it constitutes a genetic reservoir and as such is included in the DEFRA conservation strategy for UK Farm Animal Genetic Resources.

and it is a constantly reiterated Objective in the Society’s annual reports to the UK Charities Commission of:

maintaining a genetic reservoir of the breed, that adheres to the DEFRA conservation strategy

  • Who will oversee and approve the choice of Stallion/Stallions?
  • Is this a commercial rather than a conservation based approach?
  • Will Suffolk Horse Society funds be used in the harvesting, collecting, and storing of the frozen semen?
  • Will the purchase price of the frozen semen reflect commercial values or conservation ones?
Can the Suffolk Horse Society afford to offer grants/subsidies to all stallion owners to assist with semen collections?

Probably, yes to get started. The Suffolk Horse Society, through its prudent financial management together with some sturdy legacies, is certainly in a sound position. Figures 1 and 2 are taken directly from the UK Charities website (see: UK Charities Commission)

An all out fundraising campaign to raise money for ongoing subsidies for semen collections would be a worthwhile undertaking.

In Figures 1- 3 below the apparent links do not work. Use UK Charities Commission andClydesdale Horse Society for more information.

Figure 1: Financial history of Suffolk Horse Society as submitted to the UK Charities Commission

Figure 2: Financial Summary of Suffolk Horse Society as submitted to the UK Charities Commission

compared to the Clydesdale Horse Society

Figure 3: Income/Expenditure for 2012-2016 for the Clydesdale Horse Society, taken from the Charities Commission of Scotland

These figures for the Suffolk Horse Society and the Clydesdale Horse Society are interesting considering the breeding females in each herd. Also useful to compare numbers of Percherons and Shires

Table 2.2

Comparison of numbers of breeding females across four draught breeds in the UK

The Need for Transparency

Transparency is essential for the continued success of the breed. All pertinent information available should be freely accessible, allowing all with an interest to see the state of play.

Generally, transparency and full disclosure are only undesirable when there is a need for

  • Security
  • Commercial considerations
  • Individual privacy
  • Sweeping things under the rug

As with all UK registered charities, the Suffolk Horse Society is required to submit its financial dealings and a report each year to the Charity Commission for England and Wales.

As detailed in the Prefaces of the more recent Suffolk Horse Society Stud Books, the Charities Act 2011 sets out an explicit requirement for all charities to have purposes which are for public benefit. Reporting on that benefit became a requirement from 31 March 2009.

In response to Section 4 of the Act requiring charity trustees to have due regard to public benefit guidance published by the Charity Commission and being aware that the Society must report the activities undertaken to further its charitable purposes for the public benefit the Trustees [of the Suffolk Horse Society] are satisfied that the charity’s objectives are in accordance with the principles of public benefit and that the activities undertaken by the Society during 2016 are in pursuance of those objectives.

Dr Stephen Hall in 11415 GCO146 Conservation Strategies 24 April 2013 Link is to the pdf offers a recommended mode of operation for a Breed Conservation Committee, some of these relating to transparency are:

  • Encourage all breeders to adopt an overall breeding policy and to see it as a group activity.
  • Arrange for the exchange of information so there can be breed-wide networks for exchanging parent stock. 
  • If there are genetic faults in the breed, deal with them openly.
  • If there are problems, find out how these have been dealt with in other breeds, and seek advice.

Based on the points above, why are we not told the identity of Stallion Z? Is it the concern that if widely known, people would choose to not breed from his bloodline?

Apart from presumably perceived commercial considerations, there is no need for Stallion Z’s identity to remain secret. It is actually essential that his descendants are identified and bred from to increase the population, so that:

  • the hereditary gonadal hypoplasia his bloodline carries can be bred out of the population
  • the genes from his bloodline can be retained in order to maximise genetic diversity

Another instance where transparency is lacking pertains to Dr Sarah Blott’s report on genetic studies submitted at the end of 2013, most likely with her recommendations. To whom, or which Suffolk Horse Committees was this made available, apart from the Breeding Committee? Moreover, why was this report not released to the public?

Why is access to and availability of information being restricted in these instances? How does this secrecy serve to further the stated objectives of the Suffolk Horse Society?

It is Time for the Suffolk Horse Society to implement a Conservation Committee

Suffolk Punch Australia knows that all involved with the Suffolk Horse Society love these wonderful horses and only want the best outcomes for the breed, but massive change must be instituted.

There is an essential requirement for an overarching organisation that is able to devote all of its efforts to the task of saving this breed and maintaining a sufficient genetic reservoir.

It is understandable that the current Breeding Committee of the Suffolk Horse Society is comprised mostly of horse owners due to the limited size of the population of breeding horses and the correspondingly small number of owners.

The survival of the breed is now at stake and extraordinary measures need to be taken. Given the eroded gene pool of the tiny and declining population of Suffolk Punches in the UK, it is actually past time for the commercially orientated breeding of today to make way for professionals with scientific and genetic expertise.

In the light of the foregoing, consider the following from: 2.2.1 Interface with conservation strategies (Dr Stephen Hall, 11415 GCO146 Conservation Strategies 24 April 2013, page 16 of 128) Link is to the pdf.

Breeding plans

“The selective breeding of livestock in order to meet commercial requirements”

Conservation strategies

“The planned mating of livestock in order to retain breed genetic variation”

The following section from Dr Hall’s paper is quoted in full:

2.2 Practical breeding

2.2.1 Interface with conservation strategies

Breeding plans are the procedures whereby genetic variation is exploited for commercial benefit. Conservation strategies aim at maintaining genetic variation, and making it available in a sustainable manner, for breeding plans now or in the future.

Ideally, breeding plans would embody conservation strategies and indeed this is technically feasible. Modern breeding plans identify genetically superior animals by reference to the performance of their relatives, and predict the phenotypic outcomes of particular matings; schemes which can achieve this are sophisticated enough for the effects on breed genetic diversity to be deduced using by optimum contribution methods. It is emphasised that this means that genetic improvement of a breed, targeting particular performance-related genes, can proceed without excessive loss of variation in other genes. This requires computation, EVA software being one relevant package. This identifies the best animals to breed from in terms both of predicted performance of offspring and of limiting increment of co-ancestry in the population.

In many breeds an important aspect of breeding plans is the management and elimination of genetic defects and general advice is available on how to achieve this. Again, this has implications for conservation strategies because heavy use of specific élite sires many of which are heterozygous for such recessives can cause defects to become very widespread in breeds.

The reciprocal obligations of breeding plans to have an element of conservation, and of conservation strategies to have some reference to utilisation, appear implicit in international commitments to biodiversity conservation. The UK government has undertaken to conserve genetic resources and it also subscribes to principles of access and benefit sharing. However, the organisations which are actually in a position to discharge these obligations are private companies, individual farmers, breed societies and NGOs. All these parties operate in accordance with their own interests and in response to market signals.

2.2.2 Principles applying to all species

Any closed population will accumulate inbreeding, and in commercial livestock it is possible to maximise the rate of genetic gain for a given rate of increase of inbreeding in properly planned breeding programmes with research work funded by industry itself and by levy bodies. Several years ago the US genetic evaluation system was already generating the expected inbreeding coefficients for future progenies of bulls, calculated from the mean relationship of a bull with a random sample of cows born during the previous three years – by which time, unfortunately, national herds were already highly inbred. Today, dairy farmers have direct access to advice on avoiding inbreeding in their own herds. One obvious strategy, to use bulls that are only distantly related to the cow population, appears suitable, but runs the risk of such bulls being used to excess.

Issues in designing relevant information technology systems … There are essentially three classes of software architecture: central analysis using a bureau service; distributed stand-alone executable software; and internet deployment with central processing. However the problem delineated a decade ago still applies – “most existing software to help implement genetic improvement programmes is not suitable for use by breeders who do not have access to personnel trained in quantitative genetics”.

and from 2.1.5.4 Industry platforms (Dr Stephen Hall, 11415 GCO146 Conservation Strategies 24 April 2013, page 12 of 128) Link is to the pdf 

FABRE TP14, the Sustainable Farm Animal Breeding and Reproduction Platform, was set up by industry and then adopted by the EC, and has contributed to formulation of the EC’s biotechnology research agenda. It is now coordinated by the European Forum of Farm Animal Breeders. For the present discussion, a particularly relevant activity of the latter has been the formulation of a ‘Code of Good Practice for Farm Animal Breeding and Reproduction Organisations’ which includes the following:

Breeding programmes are designed to make optimal use of existing genetic variation between and within populations. Therefore, Breeding Organisations attempt to maintain genetic diversity in their breeding populations, and to monitor and control the rate of inbreeding. Moreover, Breeding Organisations will contribute semen and/or embryos to (national) gene banks for relevant breeds/lines to ensure conservation of biodiversity.

Potential Areas for a Conservation Committee to Examine
  • It is axiomatic that the first and obvious area is that of the genetics of the Suffolk Horse in the UK.

This must include a review of the “International Register” of the UK Suffolk Horse Stud Book and the valuable untapped resource of the all Anglo American horses in the UK, both male and female. Since the inception of the International Register, some years ago, this has been a de facto grading up programme. After the obligatory several grades using only mares, they may be entered into the UK Stud Book. Stallions are excluded.

In 2010 Dr Sarah Blott identified the crucial need for ‘out-crossing’ and again in 2016. If an additional examination of the Anglo American Suffolks’ genetics once again confirms that, yes, they really are Suffolk Punches, then there is no reason why they cannot be entered into the Suffolk Horse Society Stud Book with no constraints, no special section. This, it goes without saying, should include colts, stallions and geldings. And provided there are no genetic defects (again a matter for the Conservation Committee), breeding the Anglo American horses within the UK, with UK Suffolk Punches, could begin without further waiting and delay.

It also follows that importation from American stock, both male and female, be without hindrance subject to the same genetic investigations as those of the UK herd.

We found that Canadian horses have high values of genetic diversity indices and show no evidence of a serious loss of genetic diversity and the inbreeding coefficient was not significantly different from zero.

The Canadian traces its ancestry to horses sent from Louis XIV’s royal stables to the colony of New France in the mid-17th century . In spite of the colony’s harsh climate and the absence of forage, shelter and pasture, the foundation herd of less than a 100 animals flourished to 30,000 by 1784.

  • Explore the constructs put forward by William Castle in his article The Genetics of Plenty in his column From this side of the fence (p.20, Heavy Horse World Autumn 2010) wherein he discusses:

why the grading up (of horses) can still only be done through the female line, although there is absolutely no reason why grading up should not be done on the male side. Although this might not happen often, it could be very useful in maintaining a particular line.

  • Analyse and interpret conservation and equine research for its findings applicable to the Suffolk Horse. For example, a massive research study published in 2014, Genetic and environmental analysis of dystocia and stillbirths in draft horses looked at four breeds of draught horses based on 11,229, 35,877, 35,764 and 13,274 foalings, for Foaling Ease and Stillbirth Scores recorded between 1998 and 2010 for the Ardennais, Breton, Comtois and Percheron mares. Essentially asking how much was due to genetic factors and how much to environmental elements.
  • Liaise and collaborate with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust https://www.rbst.org.uk/Our-Work/Gene-Bank to ensure the collection of frozen semen, and, hopefully, frozen embryos. At the same time, liaise with the Executive Committee and the Fundraising & Marketing Committee to explore financing such activity.
  • Undertake progression to an electronic stud book, open to all members of the Suffolk Horse Society and to the American Suffolk Horse Association. Discussion could take place with ASHA to collaborate with them and their existing electronic stud book.
  • Re-institute and supervise a grading up programme which does not just depend on external examination, but on clear and undisputed genetics.

 

In Conclusion

Ideally the Suffolk Punch will be bred for maximum genetic diversity whilst still conforming to breed standards.

Whilst the Suffolk Punch breed remains in crisis, an impartial panel of expert geneticists – the proposed new Conservation Committee – will have responsibility for checking each mating is in the best interest of the breed.

Populations will be maintained across different continents (with their own Stud Books as now) to mitigate against potential catastrophe, whilst still being recognized as one genetic resource with free and unrestricted cross breeding and outbreeding where required.

In 2009 the article Running out of time concluded by saying:

There is ongoing and growing concern that the UK Suffolk herd is reaching a ‘tipping point” with its prolonged and continuing lack of genetic diversity over five decades. As it is now possible to have a DNA profile for the Suffolk, surely it is only sensible to utilize this and regard all Suffolks world-wide as one genetic reservoir.

Eight years later, this is still the case, and the situation is worsening. The old ways of ‘put a good horse to a good horse and you’ll get a good horse’ no longer apply when the population is so diminished. Surely, working together locally and globally, we can – and must – change the dismal trajectory of genetic loss. It can be done; though the clock is fast approaching midnight, it is still not too late.

The technical knowledge is there, the funding, the horsemanship, and positive collaboration. There are so many people of goodwill around the world who want to ensure that the Suffolk Punch flourishes. All of us must strive to live up to the legacy handed along by those who came before and play our role as custodians for future generations.

 

Acknowledgements

With grateful thanks always, to:

Marge Candy of the Capleach Stud, for the benefit of her wisdom and expertise on equine matters and beyond.

Josh Avila, for assistance with editing, formatting and brainstorming fun.

Bev Hatch, without whose support none of this would be possible.