21 November 1997

Fell ponys future in serious doubt unless syndrome is halted

THE survival of the Fell pony, a breed native to the Lake District hills and the northern Pennines for centuries, could be under threat because of a fatal syndrome affecting foals.

The syndrome, which is thought to be genetic, has led the Fell Pony Society to launch an action group to raise funds to help research and raise awareness with both breeders and vets.

Over the past five years there has been increasing mortality in Fell pony foals during their first few weeks of life. The affected foals immune system appears unable to cope with infections and problems which would have no effect on normal foals.

Research has been carried out on affected foals by Dr Derek Knottenbelt of Liverpool University whose concern earlier this year was reflected in his prediction that 50 foals could die from the syndrome this year.

&#42 300 registrations

"We register just over 300 foals a year and that is a substantial figure. Were obviously guided by Dr Knottenbelt. He is an eminent man in his field and if anyone is qualified to say then he is," said Fell Pony Society secretary Sally Wood.

"At the same time he has not come to a proper diagnosis because he has not had enough evidence. If it is a genetic disorder we could be looking at a serious situation for the future of the breed."

The society estimates that there are only around 400 registered breeding mares and 100 licensed stallions.

"We have a pretty small genetic pool and this is whats so worrying if it is a genetic fault," added Ms Wood.

The Fell pony is listed as a minority breed with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust – but not classified as endangered.

"If we dont do something about it, Dr Knottenbelt doesnt think there will be Fell ponies around. As a society we would be silly if we were complacent – the society exists because of the ponies."

The societys 20-strong council, around half of which is made up of Cumbrian members, has agreed at a special meeting to back the action group, Fell Pony 2000, which aims to raise an initial £12,000 from individuals, industry and charitable trusts to continue the research and provide transport for foals to be taken to their nearest Royal Veterinary College.

&#42 Prepare for winter

"Everyone has to try to work together to get this sorted out. We also have to prepare ourselves over the winter for the 1998 foaling season and make sure we contact breeders and vets so that they are all aware of the conditions of the syndrome," said Ms Wood. Breeders of non-registered stock will also be involved.

Penrith vet Paul May has seen about 40 foals with the Fell pony syndrome at varying stages, 20 of which have gone for full post mortem at the Ministry of Agricultures Merrythought Veterinary Investigation Centre.

But he believes because research so far points to the syndrome being caused by a recessive gene there is no likelihood of the breed being wiped out.

"We have got to keep an open mind until we have got the full story," said Mr May of the Rowcliffe House Partnership. Mr May added that breeders had to come forward to help establish how many foals are dying from the syndrome. Further research would then be needed to pinpoint the genetic defect and to assess the possibility of the involvement of some other factor.

But by presenting a picture that the breed was doomed was not helping the situation with breeders fearing their stock would be blighted by coming forward.

"If the condition is linked to a simple, recessive gene we could breed from every single animal so long as we can identify whether they are carriers," he said.

Jennifer MacKenzie

&#8226 Donations to Fell Pony 2000 can be made to Sally Wood at Keepers Cottage, Guyzance, Acklington, Northumberland NE65 9AA.