RBST Watchlist 2023: A Mixed Picture for Rare Breed Equines

The new Rare Breeds Survival Trust Watchlist, published yesterday, April 20th, shows a mixed picture for the UK’s native equine breeds.

Formed in 1973, this year marks 50 years of the Rare Breed Survival Trust’s work to save and safeguard the future of rare and native livestock and equine breeds. The RBST Watchlist is the annual situation report for these breeds, reflecting robust measures of the genetic diversity within each breed as well as the numbers of breeding females registered.

The new RBST Watchlist highlights two equine breeds which remain in particular need of urgent support: Eriskay ponies and Suffolk horses.

Originating in the Scottish Western Isles, the Eriskay ponies are strong and hardy, but there were only three Eriskay foals registered in 2022 so the breed remains in a critical situation. Meanwhile the Suffolk horse is the oldest of the UK’s native Heavy Horse breeds and their numbers also remain concerning.

There is better news for a number of the UK’s other rare equine breeds, which are seeing positive trends of population growth or welcome stability.

Amongst pony breeds, the Dartmoor pony appears to be making significant improvement. An iconic south-west breed, the Dartmoor’s numbers have improved sufficiently for it to be moved from the Watchlist’s Priority category to the ‘At Risk’ category, with the population’s genetic diversity being one reason for the move.

The New Forest pony also enjoyed a strong year for registrations in 2022, demonstrating welcome stability in the breed, which nevertheless remains in the At Risk category for the time being. There are also encouraging statistics for another Priority category breed, the Exmoor pony, with the number of dams increasing by 38%.

Also in the Priority category is the Cleveland Bay Horse which has nevertheless seen an increase of 17% in registrations and an increase in the number of breeders. Similarly, the Hackney Horse & Pony remains in the Priority category but has enjoyed an increased number of breeders.

RBST Chief Executive Christopher Price said: “The welcome stability and positive trends across many of the equine breeds in this year’s Watchlist pays testament to how well the keepers of our rare equine breeds have managed to navigate the impacts of the pandemic, needing to work within restrictions which put breeding opportunities at risk.

“For some of our rare equines the number of breeders has been increasing steadily, thanks to a strong equine market and growing appreciation of these breeds’ unique characteristics and range of important modern uses, from forestry and conservation grazing to the showring and riding schools.

“However, the picture remains very concerning for some of our rarest breeds, particularly the Eriskay pony and the Suffolk Horse. We are also keeping a close watch on emerging impacts of the economic downturn, especially for the small pony breeds.”

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