As the financial climate fails to pick up and the threat of overbreeding is ever present, some of our native breeds are in danger of becoming extinct. This month, Dales and Dartmoor ponies have been recategorised as “critical” and “endangered” respectively on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) watchlist.

As numbers of breeding females fall the Dales pony has moved from “endangered” to “critical” — meaning there are now fewer than 300 breeding mares. The Dartmoor moves from “vulnerable” to “endangered” with between 300-500 breeding mares.

“Described as a ‘species in crisis’ in the 2014 watchlist report, native equines continue to struggle in 2015,” said Tom Beeston of the RBST.

The risk is calculated by a significant fall in registration numbers and the estimated population trend.

“Last year’s watchlist was described as a wake-up call — this year’s delivers the message that we have more work to do, not less,” added Mr Beeston.

However, breed enthusiasts say the fall in numbers is not due to dwindling popularity, but because of responsible breeding.

The RBST agrees that due to the financial climate there is little or no market for youngstock, which has had a knock-on effect, reducing the number of pedigree registered foals.

“This has been necessary to prevent overbreeding unwanted foals, but it puts some breeds at particular risk,” said Mr Beeston.

Critical condition for Dales

Jo Asby of the Dales Pony Society told H&H the recent recategorising of the breed was “not unexpected”.

“2014 saw only 87 foals registered in the UK, but it is a reflection of the unique attributes of the Dales pony that traditional breeders do not breed foals for which there is no market,” she said. “The mass over-production of cheap black and white cobs has flooded the market for the up-to-weight family all-rounder, and the depressed financial climate means good working homes are hard to come by.”

Dales breeder Charlie Parker told H&H he had “felt a responsibility to cut back” until the market picked up.

“The summer of 2014 saw a slight rise in trade and so I have had some mares covered for this year,” he said. “I don’t feel that their popularity has fallen, but as with many of our British natives they are undervalued; we all need to sing their praises.”

Delia Weedon of Akehurst Dales Stud bought her first ponies in 1973. Since then she has bred 59 fillies and 55 colts. She doesn’t believe their popularity is decreasing either, just that the market is “very slow”.

“I have several youngsters still unsold, so for the first time since 1976 I shall not be having any foals in 2015, and my 15-year-old broodmare is about to start a new adventure, being ridden for the first time,” she said.

“It will be hard for the good breeders to keep going when people expect to buy a good, fully registered pony for less than it has cost to produce.”

Dartmoors now ‘endangered’

Although not as severe a situation as the Dales, the Dartmoor — a stalwart of the British showing circuit — is also on the decline.

But Viv Brown from the Dartmoor Pony Society (DPS) told H&H the society is “satisfied that the breed will continue to flourish” despite the fall in category.

“There is still a strong demand for ponies, who excel at the top level in all disciplines, and whose success is far greater in comparison with other breeds with much higher numbers of foals being born every year,” she said.

“The RBST’s figures do not include colts, supplementary registered foals or foals born abroad,” added Mrs Brown.

“Recently more colts have been born or registered than fillies, which does ensure a supply of ridden and driven ponies. Sadly, we cannot predict whether a breeder is going to have fillies only.”

Breeder Rod Newbolt-Young told H&H that DPS members have recognised the depressed economic situation by carrying out a responsible breeding programme. This is reflected in the numbers.

“When the situation changes the mares will be put back in foal to meet the demand,” he said.“Within the past few weeks we have seen signs this is beginning to happen, which is encouraging.”

Mr Newbolt-Young added that negative publicity surrounding the Dartmoor hill pony — an entirely separate breed — last year, when one organisation suggested preserving its future by eating them, was not helpful to the purebred breed.

“The Dartmoor pony is not for eating. In the valued, true-type Dartmoor pony almost all the breeding is controlled and pre-planned,” he said.

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Remaining steady

In better news, Clydesdales, Cleveland Bays and Shires have seen increased registrations compared to the previous year.

The Clydesdale remains in the “vulnerable” category, but enthusiasts are positive about the breed’s future.

“The numbers remain stable and we’ve had two reasonable years [2013 and 2014],” Marguerite Osborne from the Clydesdale Horse Society told H&H.

“It’s not a huge increase but it’s steady and they’re doing quite well, so it’s positive.”

Tim Ancrum from Adventure Clydesdale said he has noticed a “steady increase in interest” in the breed in the 13 years that he has been involved with heavy horses.

He believes the key is in the “amazing adaptability” of the breed.

The centre runs rides on the “rugged terrain of Dartmoor” and recently lent horses to take to the turf at Exeter racecourse (pictured above).

“I have seen the value of young heavies rise substantially over the years, and if the value increases the incentive to breed them rises, thereby helping the breeds to claw back from the brink,” he said.

Preserving for the future

The RBST told H&H it “remains very concerned” by the population trends and that much work is still required to help conserve these breeds.

Mr Beeston added that the RBST gene bank is an “essential insurance policy” for the future.

“The economic climate does not suggest that the lack of market is likely to be reversed any time soon. Conservation measures, like semen collections and gene banking, must be employed, so that if stallions are not able to be bred from now, their genes are at least banked for future use,” he said. “That, in turn, means that we have to look at ways to substantially ramp up our fundraising efforts to raise the essential revenue that will enable us to continue our work.”

➤ The RBST National Gene Bank is part of a scheme that was launched in 2002. Owners of rare-breed stallions are asked to help boost Britain’s threatened natives by putting their animals forward for semen collection. It can cost up to £5,000 to carry out a collection from a stallion, so the RBST is also appealing for donations. For information visit: www.rbst.org.uk

Ref: Horse & Hound; 22 January 2015