Time May Be Running Out for Famed "Heavy Horse" of Britain

by Liz Spring
for National Geographic News
May 22, 2001

SALISBURY, England—The Suffolk Punch—a colossal horse that has served Britain for centuries as a beast of burden and war—may be perilously close to extinction in its motherland if the country's largest stud farm for the breed closes as announced. There are only 230 of the horses left in Britain, 100 of them mares, according to the country's Suffolk Horse Society. This means the horse is more rare in the country of its origin than the giant panda is in China.

For 63 years the Hollesley Bay Prison Colony in the county of Suffolk has been breeding the gentle giants. The inmates of the 2,000-acre (800-hectare) open prison farm care for the horses and use them exclusively to till the land—a routine that has been in practice since the 1870s.

The prison's efforts are regarded as vital to the survival of the breed, which is classified as "critically endangered" by Britain's Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

The prison farm maintains the last major gene pool of the breed, and has the largest number of Suffolks in Britain—only 22 horses, including eight mares in foal.

Britain's Prison Service has announced that it plans to close the stud farm. "The farm is not our main business and there are minimal benefits achieved relative to the high costs involved—annually, about £40,000 [U.S. $57,000]," the prison said in a statement. Also, there are no longer enough prisoners to do the farm work.

A view among senior members of the prison service is that they should not be spending public money on horses, the ownership of which is widely regarded as a luxury.

Judith Phillips, chairperson of the Suffolk Horse Society, disagrees, arguing that the prison authorities should not base their decision on purely financial grounds. "It is particularly sad and shortsighted to ignore the benefits which working with horses can create in making better citizens out of the inmates," she said.

Gentle Giants

Suffolks are particularly well suited to prison work, being big, gentle and intelligent. Men who have completed their time in prison have told Phillips that they benefited from the therapeutic aspects of working with the big horses, which instilled a sense of responsibility, respect, reliability and commitment. "It makes them think of others, not merely themselves," she said.

"The prisoners are very attached to the animals," said Bruce Smith, groom and manager at the stud farm. "You can have guys here coming to the end of a sentence for murder or really hard violence, and you see them standing there whispering farewell to these great horses."

To raise funds and sponsorship for the stud farm, Smith and the inmates regularly attend agricultural and horse shows throughout the country. Teams of the Suffolks demonstrate their skills hauling heavy carts, and individual horses are shown in classes for various breeds. The horses are also frequently sought out to pull carriages for weddings.

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