Countryfile’s Adam Henson on raising the profile of Suffolk horses and making a buck from his childhood animals
Visitors to the Cotswold Farm Park, which my late dad Joe founded in 1971 to help protect rare breeds of farm animals, are always impressed by the stature of our Suffolk horses and are amazed by their history. The animals are part of our living heritage; they ploughed the land, provided us with food and kept everything going before tractors.
As a child, my dad worked with heavy horses on the farm and so he had an incredible affinity to them. We used to run heavy horse working courses here with Shires and Ardennes – a heavy European breed that we imported – to keep the skills alive.
Suffolk owner and enthusiast Nigel Oakley gifted me the mare Victoria five years ago to have on show to the public at the farm. I was really keen to help promote the breed because they are so critically rare; it seems like they’re on this helix to extinction.
My livestock manager and I decided we ought to try to breed a Suffolk, and as Victoria was getting a bit old, we bought another called Lexi who was in foal. We followed her story on Countryfile but sadly the foal died two days after birth. It was tragic. Lexi is now back in foal and we’re hoping she’ll foal this spring.
With Countryfile we filmed at Stallion AI Services in Shropshire last year and looked at how they’ve used the process of sexed semen with Suffolks, where female-only sperm is selected to impregnate the mare to increase the number of mares being born.
I’ve heard from the Suffolk Horse Society that after the programme they had a lot of interest with people joining the society and donating money. It’s brilliant that it can help. Draught horses have served us over hundreds of years incredibly well, so it would be a tragic thing if they were lost for ever.
My dad was a great trailblazer and advocate for rare breeds’ conservation back in the late 1960s and early ’70s. I grew up with three older sisters and he gave us all a rare breed as children to help us understand the husbandry and responsibility of looking after those animals. We would go with him to sales and we had a financial interest because if we sold something, half the money would go into our piggy bank and the other half would go into the farm.
The animals that I had initially as a little boy were Exmoor ponies, which are categorised as endangered by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. We now have half a dozen of them here on the farm. On Countryfile I’ve helped gather them up on Exmoor and they’re up there in all conditions; watching them graze gorse and moving those spiny stems around in their mouth is extraordinary.
There’s one Exmoor mare on the farm, May, who is now 28 years old. There was something wrong with her mother so we had to bottle-feed her as a foal and so she is super-friendly.
I always wanted to be a cowboy when I was little, but I was never very good at riding. My dad gave me a spotted pony called Domino with a Western saddle and I used to get about a mile away from home on him, he’d buck me off and then I’d walk home crying.
Because I don’t ride now, when I took part in the Golden Horseshoe Ride – a 160km endurance ride over two days – on Exmoor for Countryfile, I used muscles that I didn’t know existed.
We went out to Australia with the cameras for Countryfile and were rounding up cattle with helicopters in areas people can’t get to. They then dropped me off and I jumped on one of their stock horses, which were like sheepdogs, reacting if they saw a calf or cow about to break from the herd. You had to have your wits about you and make sure you were sitting on well.
Having loved cowboy films as a child that was an amazing experience, like a dream come true.
Ref: Horse & Hound; 3 December 2020
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