THE preservation of Exmoor pony bloodlines could be put at risk by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Exmoor Pony Society has warned that lockdown and social distancing rules could lead to fewer Exmoor ponies being registered this year, potentially impacting the breed's conservation.

Exmoor ponies are listed as 'endangered' by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST), and with shows being cancelled, sales disrupted and lack of clarity around distancing guidelines, breeders could overlook new foal registrations.

RBST chief executive, Christopher Price, said: “Registration of animals is crucial for rare breed conservation.

"Every registration helps to give us a more accurate picture of the status of each rare breed, allowing us to analyse trends such as increases or decreases in numbers, and geographic distribution.

"These analyses inform our conservation objectives, decisions on the capture of genetic material, programmes to prevent inbreeding, and support for keepers’ commercial avenues."

Sue McGeever, secretary at the Exmoor Pony Society, the formal guardians of the breed, said: "The Society relies on information from stallion owners to estimate the foal numbers for any given year.

"This is through stallion returns provided each summer and breeders advising us they have foals for registration.

"However this year we are concerned that disruption in normal activity could lead to missed registrations and inspections in 2020, and fewer foals in 2021 with breeders not taking mares to stallions."

Progeny of unregistered ponies cannot be registered in the Exmoor Pony Society stud book, so one missed registration can interrupt a bloodline that has survived for generations.

"We do have a number of safeguards in place. We offer a late registration service which allows for an Exmoor pony of any age to be registered provided that the pony can be DNA parentage tested to a registered sire and dam," Sue said.

"And, if breeders are worried about inspections this year, once we receive the paperwork, a foal can be placed in Section X of the studbook pending inspection when the breeder is happy for the Society to visit their premises."

With just 26 registered Exmoor bloodlines in the world remaining, the Exmoor Pony Society believes it is vital to maintain accurate records and monitor genetic diversity.

This applies here in the UK as well as overseas.

Some 500 registered Exmoor ponies, owned by the moorland farmers, run on various commons within the Exmoor National Park, and another 3,500 are registered ponies worldwide.

However, the number of breeding mares remains relatively low with only 500 mares currently shown to have produced a foal in the last five years, with an average of 125 to 150 foals being registered each year.

Sue added: “We would remind all breeders to notify us when they have a foal so that the appropriate paperwork can be provided to have the foal microchipped, DNA parentage tested and inspected prior to registration in the studbook.

"If in doubt about how inspections currently operate they should contact us on 01884 839930."