Scientists help protect England’s oldest breed of horses

Researchers helped safeguard the genetic diversity of England’s oldest established breed of horse, the Cleveland Bay.

The Nottingham Trent University study focused on minimizing kinship ties between Cleveland Bay by supporting breeders with historical information about each animal’s parentage through their pedigree records.

The work, which spanned nearly 20 years, has reduced the rate of inbreeding in Cleveland Bay horses from more than three percent per generation to less than 0.5% per generation.

Additionally, the population of Cleveland Bays in the UK has grown from 20 in 1994 to over 140 in 2020.

A “Breed Conservation and Management System” has been developed which provides breeding recommendations based on the horses’ genetic history. It offers breeders a simple red, amber and green system depending on whether the horses are related and need to be bred.

“What we have created is like a family tree for the horses of Cleveland Bay,” said Philippe Wilson, researcher at Nottingham Trent University.

“There are serious and growing concerns about genetic diversity in many breeds. Animals are bred for all kinds of business purposes and for particular traits and qualities, but once the genes are gone, they are gone forever.

“If we don’t have enough purebred individuals, or if a male in a small population breeds with many females for example, it can have a deleterious effect on genetic diversity.”

Heritage breed

Cleveland Bay originated three centuries ago in the North East of England, where it was used both as a carriage horse and for working the land.

Since the end of World War I, the breed has undergone a substantial decline in numbers due to the modernization of transportation and the mechanization of agriculture.

By the 1950s he was on the verge of extinction, with only four purebred stallions remaining and is currently one of seven equine breeds listed as priority by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

“We have created a tool that uses pedigree records and the genetic status of animals to inform breeding strategy,” added Dr Andy Dell, researcher at Nottingham Trent University.

“We have shown that this tool works successfully in improving the genetics of the endangered Cleveland Bay horse population and we can apply our system to other endangered breeds.”

Main image by Colin Green

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