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Scientists have made a breakthrough that could mean an end to foals suffering the fatal condition Fell Pony Syndrome.

The genetic mutation responsible for the syndrome — also known as foal immunodeficiency syndrome (FIS) — has been pinpointed.

And a DNA test to identify carriers will be available at the Animal Health Trust (AHT) from February.

Geneticist Dr June Swinburne of the AHT said: “After 10 years of research, this is an exciting and important discovery for breeders of fell and dales ponies.

Breeders will be able to make informed decisions about which ponies to breed. This should prevent unnecessary suffering and, in time, eradicate this condition.”

Foals affected with FIS appear normal at birth but within a few weeks begin to lose condition. Severe anaemia and immune dysfunction follows, leading to wasting and death.

Fell Pony Society chairman Mary Longsdon said: “About 40% of fell ponies are carriers of this disease and, if both parents are carriers, a foal has a one-in-four chance of being affected.

“I believe the test is marvellous news for the breed.”

FIS can also affect dales ponies, which have a shared ancestry with fells.

Secretary of the Dales Pony Society Jo Ashby said her society was “delighted” and breeders would discuss the breakthrough at their meeting in February.

Some of the funding for the research, carried out by the AHT and Liverpool University, came from The Horse Trust.

This article was first published in Horse & Hound (17 December, ’09)