Why Sian and colleagues are so in love with the Suffolk Punch
- Credit: Archant
The number of registered adult breeding female horses has dropped by more than 5% in a year, so the battle’s on
Working with horses isn’t exactly glamorous – a catalogue in the office, lying open at a page for equine faecal worm egg-count kits, is proof of that – but by heck it does a lot for the soul and Sian Smith is one of those who wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I turned to horses as a form of therapy,” she says, admitting she was a late-comer to riding. “I was a very shy teenager. Didn’t get on with people at school. Didn’t have a lot of confidence.”
Then, when she was 16 or so, she recalled going to a riding party at about 10 or 11, to celebrate someone’s birthday, “and remember really enjoying it and coming out of my shell and buzzing for a couple of weeks afterwards”.
Feeling in a bit of a rut as a teenager, she thought she’d give it another look. She went to an equine centre, had half an hour’s lesson, liked it, and began volunteering there in exchange for time in the saddle. It’s fair to say Sian hasn’t looked back.
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Last July she became one of the stud grooms at the Suffolk Punch Trust’s Colony Stud, helping care for a precious collection of Suffolk Horses (aka the Punch) and making sure the breed dodges the spectre of extinction.
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust has the Suffolk Horse on its “critical” list, because there are fewer than 300 registered breeding females in the UK.
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Worse, the number of registered adult breeding females has dropped by more than 5% in a year. It’s believed to be more endangered than the panda, and that seems borne out by figures from conservation organisation WWF.
Because the Punch population is so thin, the genetic breeding pool is narrow and the choice of potential mums and dads limited.
The stud’s superstar stallion – Besthorpe Achilles, who will be 13 at the end of April – has sired 20 foals. “He’s a champion, with a nice temperament, and everyone wants him”, but it means there’s lots of his DNA floating about!
Nevertheless, the stud should see two births before very long – even if matchmaking does involve lengthy researching of equine family trees.
Staff had to look back generations to find a sire for Vumba Deeanne and Colony Zinnia that wasn’t too closely related. “We had a choice of two: Devon or Norfolk. We hopped up to Norfolk!”
The due dates are in February and March. It’s no surprise staff are a bit Mother Hen-ish. Everything’s well-monitored, though. The five foaling units are covered by CCTV that staff can view through phones, tablets and laptops. Later on, they’ll be on hand, checking temperatures and progress.
The Suffolk Punch is part of our heritage that shouldn’t be lost, says Sian. It’s a loyal gentle giant that powered
East Anglian agriculture. Modern Suffolks are descended from Crisp’s Horse of Ufford, foaled in 1768.
“They’re short and stocky and perfect for the land. They don’t have a lot of feathers” – at their feet – “like the shires and Clydesdales.
“In Suffolk we have a lot of mud; it gets very deep. Back in the day, they used to just put them in the stable, give them some grub, let them dry off, get a bit of straw, get a stiff brush, flick all the mud off them, and they’d go out and work.”
So what went wrong, and what needs to happen?
“Bring all the horses back that were left over there after the war,” she grins, ruefully. “They took the Suffolks and heavy horses.” This was the First World War, when the British army requisitioned more than 1.2million horses for duty on and around the muddy battlefields of Belgium and France.
“The war ended. They brought a few back. But most were left to fend for themselves or were shot when they got too old, or were sold at market. War Horse (Michael Morpurgo’s story) is a prime example. The auction scene is how it went.”
Seeing that we can’t turn back time, what can be done today?
“We ideally want more fillies to be produced, for year-to-year breeding. We want some colts that aren’t too close to other breeding pools.”
The stud does have a colt on loan, “who’s come from Holbeach. Here for three years and not related to anything here”. So he can cover likely mares.
Is she confident about the future?
“I’d like to say yes, but Mother Nature throws some horrible spanners in the works, sometimes, so you can’t go out 100% confident and say ‘We’re going to bring the breed back’ (from the edge) because you never know what’s going to happen. There are so many illnesses. Strangles… equine flu… tetanus…”
Sian’s voice breaks as she remembers how they lost 15-year-old mare Colony Olive the Second – a “fantastic mum” to four-month-old foal Dotty – in August. That was down to colic.
So avoiding disease is something they’re hoping for. That aside, a key thing is broadening those bloodlines. “And we will get there. It’s going to be a work in progress – just year after year after year.”
The Suffolk Punch Trust and its Colony Stud relies on raising money. Its visitor centre, farm (rare black pigs, oldest registered flock of Suffolk sheep in the world, and more) and café are closed for winter but re-open on March 23. Visitors can meet horses and foals, go to the pets paddock, watch demonstrations, enjoy a glimpse of the past at the heritage museum and look at more than 60 horse-drawn vehicles.
It was 1759 when the Barthrop family introduced the Suffolk Punch to the Hollesley estate. The farm later became a college to train men to farm in the colonies. In 1938 the estate was bought by the Prison Commissioners and offenders worked with the horses and on the land. 2000: The Prison Service decided to stop farming. The Suffolk Punch Trust managed to buy the stud and 188 acres. The centre is at Hollesley, near Woodbridge, IP12 3JR. www.suffolkpunchtrust.org