First steps of a foal that could help revive a dying breed of endangered horses

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The Independent Online

She looks like an ordinary filly taking her first halting steps into the world but this Eriskay foal offers hope for a species that has been reduced to just 300 on the planet and is rarer than the endangered giant panda.

The tiny, light brown pony's initial steps - she was born on Wednesday - mark an important moment in the breed's survival, not least because she is a healthy filly who raises the potential for breeding more of her species.

Animal specialists were celebrating because the filly, born at the Cholderton Rare Breeds Farm Park, in Wiltshire, gives hope of saving the rare breed.

The species originates from the remote isle of Eriskay, in the Outer Hebrides and alarm over their future was sounded in the 1970s when there were found to be just 20 still surviving.

Campaigners quickly formed the Eriskay Pony Society and now there are 300 mares as well as a handful of pure-breed stallions, with their chance of survival more secure than it has been for almost a century.

DNA testing at the University of Leicester has proved that they are a distinct, primitive species, with ancient origins.

The isle of Eriskay is remote and other horses and ponies were never introduced on the island, and the Eriskay ponies were selectively bred over the years by islanders, who used them for crofting, farming and fishing.

The new-born foal, who is 2ft 6in tall, joins a herd of four at the rare breeds centre. Allan Talley, farm manager at the centre, said it was all the more significant that a filly had been born.

"This is the second foal we've had in two years. But this is a filly so it's more important because we can breed from her. We have five here now and this one is a very important foal because there are only about four pure-breed stallions and her father was one of them.

"They are incredibly rare and endangered and we are part of a programme to keep the breed alive and are one of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust centres," he said. He added that the ponies were a hardy breed that were used on farms and have an easy nature as well as a small appetite which make them ideal workhorses for farmers.

"Originally they were crofters' or farmers' ponies. On Eriskay the men tended to go and fish and the women did the crofting and farming. Over the years, they just bred from the quiet well-mannered ones and not from the bad tempered ones."

"That led to a breed that was tough, quiet and easy tempered. They can live on very meagre rations and will live on mosses and lichen. They have an oily coat that keeps the weather out and they have a high tail that hangs down and protects their backs from the weather.

"They also have a long nose so the cold air they breathe in is warmed by the time it reaches their lungs. They are tough, endurable and very strong and make ideal ponies for children to use," Mr Talley said.