Exmoor Ponies Immortalized in SVF Foundation’s Biorepository
Exmoor ponies are classified as “threatened” on The Livestock Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List, but thanks to a recent collaboration, SVF Foundation and Exmoor Ponies of North America (EPNA) have ensured that this ancient breed will be preserved for generations to come.
The first known record of Exmoor ponies appears in The Domesday Book, which was written in 1086 A.D. Back then and for centuries after, Exmoors roamed the rugged, rocky moors of southwest England, where through natural selection they developed vital survival traits that protected them from the area’s treacherous terrain and windy, damp climate. The breed was driven nearly to extinction after World War II, due to trigger-happy soldiers and thieves who killed them for their meat. After the war, a small group of breeders worked to preserve the breed, and in the 1950s the first Exmoor ponies in North America were imported to Canada. Today, fewer than 3,000 Exmoor ponies exist in the entire world, mostly in their native England, and only about 100 of those reside in North America.
Saddened by the tenuousness of the Exmoor breed, Dr. Jed Struckus founded Exmoor Ponies of North America in 1999 on his farm in New Preston, Connecticut. He started with just two ponies—a mare and a filly—and over time he expanded his herd to twenty-five ponies, using bloodlines available in North America and the United Kingdom. Though they don’t do as many exhibitions now due to time constraints, EPNA Exmoors have competed quite successfully in everything from lead line all the way up to competitive trail, dressage, and fox hunting.
In April, 2013, Lisa Wojan, DVM, EPNA’s agent and breed ambassador, travelled to SVF with a proposal to add Exmoor ponies to SVF’s extensive catalog of cryo-preserved germplasm. She was referred by SVF’s scientific advisor, Dr. George Saperstein of Tufts University, who had been her professor in veterinary school years before. Though SVF’s focus is primarily on food and fiber livestock breeds like cattle, sheep, and goats, they were glad to include genetic materials from Exmoor ponies to their collection, due to various survival traits that the heritage breed displays. It also helped that EPNA is located just a few hours away in Connecticut and is home to the largest herd of Exmoor ponies outside the United Kingdom, with the most diverse stallion lines in the world.
“Exmoor ponies reflect their native culture” says Wojan. “If you walk into a herd with a bunch of Exmoors that don’t know you, they’ll stand there like a bunch of stoic little Brits. They’ll observe you, but they don’t get roused. They truly will ‘keep calm and carry on,’ as the saying goes.”
Unlike many of the more refined breeds historically kept as pets or show ponies, Exmoors are all-purpose animals, originally used in shepherding, hunting and ploughing farmland. They are extremely sure footed with a smooth, low stride and dense bone structure that give them easy movement over rough terrain, and they posses distinct physical characteristics that make them great survivors. For instance, their prominent, fleshy eyelids (known as “toad eyes”) provide extra insulation and help to deflect water from the face; their small ears and large nasal passages prevent heat loss; and their dual-layered winter coat, consisting of a warm wooly undercoat and a top-coat of longer, oily hairs, is almost completely waterproof.
“Distinct characteristics like their thick eyelids and lustrous, waterproof coats make Exmoor ponies an interesting addition to our collection of genetic materials,” said Sarah Bowley, Program Director at SVF Foundation. “It’s these survival traits that might be called on in the future. Eventually, we may need to call on qualities found in heritage breed animals that are a little bit hardier, and require less intensive management by people.”
Once they got the go-ahead from SVF Foundation, Wojan and her team at Exmoor Ponies of North America began the laborious process of selecting a genetically diverse cross-section of ponies to sample for SVF’s genetic repository. First, they selected ten ponies based on bone density, height, coloring, and survival characteristics such as the double coat, small ears, and toad eye. They then enlisted the help of Dr. Jessica Petersen at the University of Nebraska to rank the ponies by pedigree. From there, they were able to narrow their pool of donors to five ideal specimens that demonstrated the gamut of vital traits characteristic of Exmoors. When the sampling was completed, SVF was able to accept five out of six cell samples and all twenty blood samples, a rare occurrence, considering the tenuous extraction procedures and transportation from site to site. As an extra precaution, the USDA’s National Animal Germplasm Program (NAGP) will also be banking samples from EPNA’s fieldwork, in order to provide as broad coverage as possible in case of disaster.
Said Wojan, “We wanted to really try and follow [SVF’s] mission, and to make sure that what we put in their library of genetic materials could really make a difference in the future of the breed. Now we can sleep at night knowing that we have done something good for the breed that will last forever.”
Written by Peggy Paul