Scientists undertake major DNA study of Eriskay pony genetics

A group of Eriskay Ponies in Scotland. The breed stands 124-138cm (12-31.2hh) and is very strong for its size.
A group of Eriskay Ponies in Scotland. The breed stands 124-138cm (12-31.2hh) and is very strong for its size. Photo by jsutcℓiffe

DNA analysis of Scotland’s critically endangered Eriskay Pony is being undertaken by genetics experts as part of efforts to protect and promote the native breed.

Nottingham Trent University (NTU) is to carry out a comprehensive and detailed DNA analysis of the breed in conjunction with the Rare Breed Survival Trust’s (RBST) three-year Equine Conservation project, to help inform future breeding plans and decision-making for the breed.

The ground-breaking work will give an assessment of genetic variation and molecular basis of inbreeding within the Eriskay Pony breed which will then be collated in an Eriskay Pony Genetic Archive (EPGA).

The project has been initiated and funded by the Eriskay Pony Society, with additional funding from the Horserace Betting Levy Board (HBLB). The grant from the HBLB followed a rigorous bidding process, in which a detailed and costed proposal was submitted.

Eriskay ponies are among the last surviving remnants of the original native ponies of the Western Isles of Scotland. Until the middle of the 19th-century ponies of the “Western Isles type” were found throughout the islands, where they were used as crofters ponies, undertaking everyday tasks such as carting, harrowing and taking the children to school. On many of the islands, other breeds were introduced to “improve” the breed, but the remoteness of Eriskay made this difficult. With increasing mechanisation the number of purebred ponies had declined to around 20 animals by the early 1970s.

The analysis, being carried out by NTU’s Medical Technologies Innovation Facility (MTIF) and School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences, involves Professor Philippe Wilson, Dr Samuel White and Dr Andy Dell.

Wilson said it would be a “paradigm-shifting project” for the Eriskay breed.

“We will be employing state-of-the-art genotyping technologies in order to support a detailed understanding of the genetic status of the Eriskay and will work closely with the breed society to really deliver impact directly to the breeders.

“As a direct extension of the work we have undertaken on the Cleveland Bay, we hope to see our population management system and molecular genetics approaches used more widely in native breeds going forward,” Wilson said.

Eriskay Pony Society chair Catriona Rowan said the project was a very welcome step forward in efforts to protect and promote “this ancient yet versatile breed”.

Studies in recent years have shown that the Eriskay Pony is one of the most genetically distinct and ancient breeds of Mountain and Moorland ponies.

The gene pool was small and the studbook was “relatively narrow” compared to breeds such as the Cleveland Bay, and it was not practical to rely on the look of ponies and studbook information alone to make breeding decisions, she said.

Newborn Eriskay filly foal Bydand Correen, by Whitney Harrier, with her mum, Altens Alice. Bydand Correen was bred in Aberdeenshire by Steve and Ruth McMinn. Altens Alice was bred at Doonies Rare Breed Farm in Aberdeen.
Newborn Eriskay filly foal Bydand Correen, by Whitney Harrier, with her mum, Altens Alice, who was bred at Aberdeen’s Doonies Rare Breed Farm. Bydand Correen was bred in Aberdeenshire by Steve and Ruth McMinn. © Eriskay Pony Society

“Narrow pedigrees mean that pedigree analysis alone cannot be relied upon with confidence to estimate inbreeding within the population. Genotyping and sequencing can provide the molecular picture of the genetic health of the breed.”

The society had already adopted the RBST’s “Sparks” system of selection (Single Population Analysis and Records keeping system) which helps prevent inbreeding.

“However, we recognise that science and technology can give us a much more accurate understanding of the genetics, flagging up any current or potential future issues and helping us make sure that every animal bred is as healthy and fit for purpose as possible,” Rowan said.

The study is free and is open to any Eriskay Pony registered with a recognised Eriskay breed society, either The Eriskay Pony Society or Comann Each Nan Eilean (CENE). It requires only a hair sample.

“This will give us a great foundation with which to work. It will be a baseline of information for use in our work with the RBST’s Equine Conservation Project, which requires us to provide complex information about our genetic profiles,” Rowan said.

RBST Chief Executive Christopher Price said a detailed understanding of the breed would be used to support future work.

“This work alongside the Equine Conservation Project will be extremely beneficial to the breed. The Eriskay Pony Society have been very strategic in how they have approached this project in terms of identifying a need and obtaining the required funding, an approach that could be utilised by other breed societies.”

Rowan said that the more samples that were processed, the better the overall picture that could be built of the breed and the more useful the information will be.

“We’re confident that this move, together with our wider work in conjunction with other rare equine breed societies in the RBST Equine Conservation Project will move our studbook to a new level of accuracy and lay a good base for further work,” Rowan said.

» To find out more or order a DNA kit, Samples must be returned by the end of July.


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