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Scientists are undertaking ground-breaking research into a fatal genetic defect that has been killing Fell ponies for generations.

The Animal Health Trust at Newmarket and Liverpool University has received £114,000 of funding from the Horse Trust to find a way to eliminate Fell pony syndrome.

Fell pony syndrome is a genetic defect that leads to foals being born with a severe immune deficiency. Barely surviving for weeks, the foals catch myriad diseases and ailments for which they have no defence.

Dr June Swinburne, who is leading the project said: “Fell pony syndrome is probably the result of in-breeding around the Second World War, when there were few breeding lines.”

Following the research, Dr Swinburne says breeders will be able to test whether their pony is a carrier.

“Once we’ve identified the genetic fault, we will be able to prevent diseased foals being born,” she said.

The Fell Pony Society will be working with the scientists.

Chairman Mary Longsdon said: “Fell pony syndrome is extremely nasty. The foals die before your eyes and there’s nothing you can do.”

Fell ponies live in semi-feral herds, but are all registered and owned. They are designated as “at risk” by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, with less than 1,500 breeding mares globally.

www.fellponysociety.org