Mystery scourge threatens to wipe out Britain's fell ponies

VETERINARY scientists are conducting research into a mystery genetic disorder which has killed hundreds of the Lake District's famous fell ponies, and threatens the survival of the breed.

The disorder, which affects newborn foals, causes them to die by attacking their immune systems so that they are unable to fight infection or disease.

At least a quarter of the foals born this year are expected to die, and the situation is growing steadily worse, according to Dennis Brunt, a fell pony breeder and secretary of a newly formed charity, Fell Pony 2000. "We are very concerned," he said. "There are only 6,000 fell ponies worldwide, most of them in this country. About 50 of the new foals born this year will die in a very distressing way.

"The ponies are born effectively without any form of immune system, laying them open to any kind of infection, including those you wouldn't normally find in a horse.

"They suffer painful ulcerated stomachs, damaged lungs, pneumonia and other conditions, but there is nothing that can be done about it. There is no cure, although owners have spent hundreds of pounds trying to save their foals. It will be eradicated only through breeding."

Mr Brunt and his wife, Dineen, have two healthy foals born last May on their farm in Todmorden, West Yorkshire. "We have been lucky," said Mrs Brunt. "We have never had a foal born with this problem. But it can happen to any breeder."

The couple are working closely with the Fell Pony Society and veterinary researchers at Liverpool University, headed by Dr Derek Knottenbelt, senior lecturer in equine studies. He said: "The disease is almost invariably fatal. No breed can stand that kind of problem for long. Failure to recognise and identify the problem could be catastrophic. We have examined a few of the foals before death and a number immediately after. Respiratory tract virus infections and gut and joint infections which have no effect on normal foals are proving fatal. Breathing problems, diarrhoea, inflammation of body fat and failure to grow and feed properly are also a risk. In all cases, the foals' immune systems seem unable to take over resistance to disease."

Dr Knottenbelt has travelled around the country, meeting breeders - including the Queen - to explain how clinical and post-mortem examinations have suggested that the cause of the illness is not an infection or toxic contamination, but a genetic defect.

Foals affected tend to be born weak, lethargic and anaemic. Signs of the disease include a rough or discoloured coat, and poor weight gain.

Dr Knottenbelt said proper financing was needed to continue the work. "If we were talking about thoroughbreds we would be awash with money, but because we are dealing with a humble fell pony, there is nothing.

"But I know breeders are doing everything they can to help us deal with this very distressing problem. We still have to identify the gene involved. Then a test needs to be devised to identify carriers of the defective gene, so breeders will be able to eventually eradicate the problem."

Sally Wood, secretary of the Fell Pony Society, said: "Everyone has been very supportive, working hard to raise money for research. We have set a target of pounds 25,000, a great deal of money for a society as small as ours, but there is a great amount of good will and our members care very passionately about these animals."

Fell ponies usually fetch no more than pounds 200 as foals, and up to pounds 2,000 as adults. They are native to the north Pennines and the Cumberland and Westmorland areas of the Lake District and were used extensively in the last century for hauling lead from mines.

They are favoured by riding stables as children's mounts, and by the riding for the disabled movement, because of their docile temperaments.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
filmReview: In the face of all-round devastation, even Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson appears a little puny
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bright lights, big city: Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles by dusk
books
Sport
Harry Kane makes Paul Scholes' Premier League team of the season
footballPaul Scholes on the best players, managers and goals of the season - and the biggest disappointments
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor