Prison farm closure raises fears for rare Suffolk horse

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The future of a breed of horse rarer than the giant panda is in jeopardy, after it was revealed that one of the last remaining farms where Suffolk Punches are bred is being considered for closure.

The future of a breed of horse rarer than the giant panda is in jeopardy, after it was revealed that one of the last remaining farms where Suffolk Punches are bred is being considered for closure.

There are only 237 registered, pure-bred Punches in existence, and 22 are at a farm run by inmates from Hollesley Bay Prison, in Suffolk. It has been breeding the horses since it opened in 1938 and without it, experts say, a valuable piece of living heritage could be lost.

A review of Britain's prisons, due to be completed next month, is expected to recommend the disposal of the Suffolk stud farm as surplus to business requirements.

The Punch was first bred in the 16th century as a draught-horse, able to drag cargo over the Suffolk clay. It was used in the First World War to haul guns and medical wagons.

In terms of rare beasts, there are twice as many mountain gorillas and 10 times as many wild giant pandas.

Martin Goymour, vice-chairman of the Suffolk Horse Society, said: "The horses are part of our living heritage, as much as any stately home is. Just 150 years ago, everything was being done by horse power, and these horses are what East Anglia was built on.

"We are very proud of our heavy horses and are anxious to make sure their future is safe. The stud is very important due to the stallions. Keeping them is one of the main, difficult things because they can be dangerous.

"It's a specialist task, and there aren't many people who keep them nowadays. If the farm closed, it's not so much that they'd be lost, but the stud and the expertise may be."

Council officials in Suffolk have visited the farm - where eight of the mares are in foal - to assess potential for expansion. They say it may be suitable for development into a visitor attraction, but National Lottery funds and money from regional protection schemes would be needed. A request for Lottery funding was recently turned down.

A spokeswoman for the Prison Service said there was no longer much work for prisoners at the 1,750-acre farm. She said: "There's a review going on at the moment but no decision has been made.

"The Prison Service is being reviewed nationally, but the stud has been looked at slightly separately. The Service doesn't feel it's part of its core business plan.

"We're looking for alternative ways to keep it going. Every effort is being made to keep it as a stud. But the Prison Service's job is to run prisons. We are meant to be looking after inmates, not rare breeds of horses."

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