New hope for the survival of semi-wild herds of Exmoor Ponies

Exmoor Pony Society image copyright Tricia Gibson
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Genomic Analysis Advance Gives New Hope for Future of Exmoor Ponies

The first whole genome sequence of a UK native pony breed is giving new hope for the survival of the iconic semi-wild herds of Exmoor Ponies.

The availability of the breed’s full gene sequence as a result of the whole genome sequencing by Dr Sarah Blott at the University of Nottingham is described by Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) and partners as a quantum leap in understanding the Exmoor Pony’s genetic make-up, opening up important new possibilities for the work to save the rare breed from extinction.

Ponies have lived on Exmoor since ancient times, developing great hardiness, independent spirit and intelligence. The late 1940s nearly saw the demise of the Exmoor Pony breed with population estimates at just 50. The ponies’ numbers have improved through breeding off the moor as well as efforts to grow the herds of semi-feral ponies still running on the moor, but the breed’s genetic pool is small and it remains one of the most endangered of our native equines. It is categorised as a Priority breed by RBST.

RBST Trustee Professor Tim Morris said:

Up until now genetic analysis to further the conservation of native livestock and especially equine breeds has been restricted to examining a much smaller set of genes. But thanks to this comprehensive genomic analysis, undertaken over several years and representing the 2.7 billion DNA base pairs in the genome, we can now see the Exmoor Pony breed’s whole genetic picture for the first time. This is a quantum leap in genetic understanding which can be used to improve the breed’s prospects for survival long into the future, opening up new possibilities in managing genetic diversity, in identifying conditions which could put the breed’s future at risk, and in ascertaining whether changes in herds are down to genetics or environmental factors.”

The whole genome has never before been analysed for equine breed conservation in the UK, but has now become a more viable prospect thanks to scientific advances and costs coming down. The only other equine breeds for which complete genomes currently exist are the Thoroughbred and the Mongolian pony. The Exmoor Pony whole genome analysis was commissioned by RBST, Exmoor National Park Authority and the Exmoor Pony Society, with generous support and assistance from the University of Nottingham and local individuals. Hair samples were taken from both semi-wild and domesticated ponies around Britain in early 2021, after selection via the breed’s stud book to ensure a truly representative sample for study. 15 of these samples have been aligned with a further core reference sample to provide a unique and highly representative Exmoor Pony whole genome.

RBST Chief Executive Christopher Price said: “

This is an incredibly important advance in the fight for the Exmoor Pony breed’s survival. We are thrilled with the success of this very ambitious project, made possible through the dedication and expertise of Dr Sarah Blott at the University of Nottingham in navigating this technically and logistically challenging project during the disruption of the pandemic. The Exmoor Pony is irreplaceable, it is part of our national heritage but it also has an important role in environmental land management today and in the future. This genomic analysis is a major landmark in underpinning the breed’s future and we hope that this work will serve as a model for similar whole genomic analyses of other rare breeds of livestock and equines.” 

All the Exmoor Ponies on the moor are owned by moorland farmers with specific grazing rights, who monitor the herds at key stages of the breeding cycle. David Wallace, Vice Chairman of the Exmoor Pony Society and co-owner with his wife Emma of the moor bred Anchor herd, said:

The society is delighted to have part funded the Genome Project which has mapped the whole genome of the registered Exmoor pony. The resulting information will assist in the future health and welfare of this rare native breed and allow the society to carry out further research. Quality scientific information together with good equine management go hand in hand.”

As well as their importance as a breed in their own right, ponies are particularly important for Conservation Grazing thanks to the dental conformation making them very neat grazers with a clean bite. Semi-wild Exmoor ponies, well adapted to challenging moorland conditions readily graze on tough herbage that other animals will not touch, allowing more delicate plants space to grow. Their natural grazing style is used to improve biodiversity in land management by the National Trust, RSPB and Wildlife Trusts among others, as well as all over the Exmoor National Park itself.

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The full genomic profile of the Exmoor ponies is being uploaded to the European Nucleotide Archive (www.ebi.ac.uk/ena/browser/home ) and after data quality assessments with be available for 31st of October 2022 under the reference ‘PRJEB51426 Whole genome sequencing of the Exmoor pony’.

More on saving the Exmoor Pony Breed

Feature image:

Exmoor Pony Society image copyright Tricia Gibson
Exmoor Pony Society image copyright Tricia Gibson

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Author: Suzanne Ashton Founder, Everything Horse Ba Hons Marketing Management email: contact@everythinghorseuk.co.uk

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