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Why we should open the door, not slam it shut

I FELT like I was in paradise the other day. Beautiful, ethereal creatures were flying all around me, the air was warm and inviting, but elsewhere London dripped with a cold spring rain.

It was clearly a fecund heaven, as life was proliferating in all its stages. None of the adults cared, either, as their children watched sex and birth in surprising measures taking place almost literally under their noses.

All right, these were not angels getting it on - it was Butterfly Jungle, a temporary exhibit at the Natural History Museum in London, filled with butterflies, moths and children from all over the world. The flying creatures had been shipped in chrysalis form (if only we could do that with the kids), but once in their heated new habitat, they were happy to mate and pupate all on their own. A glass box filled with chrysalises that hatches around 40 new butterflies per day testified to the success of the environment as a breeding ground.

Butterflies have their problems in the wild, but they do take well to breeding in captivity. If only it were so easy with horses. Breeding is all important to the thoroughbred enterprise, and we have made it the most unnatural experience you can imagine; which is funny, because there is a rigid stipulation in the rules that thoroughbreds must mate "naturally" if their offspring are to be eligible for racing.

Just about the only natural thing left about a thoroughbred mating is how the sperm gets to the ovum, although this can be helped along legitimately with ‘reinforcement' - not a terribly natural-sounding process.

But one of the most unnatural aspects of breeding is how often we require stallions to do it; as all in the business know, young and popular sires may be mated three or four times per day, more or less round the clock in order to service their big books in the three and a half months allotted to meet industry demand for an early foal.

Maybe it's just coincidence, but this year there seems to have been a spate of young stallions who aren't taking to the rigorous regime. And there is scientific evidence the effect of large books is negatively affecting overall conception rates, says Twink Allen, formerly head of the former Equine Fertility Unit in Newmarket, and still active in retirement at hisown lab in nearby Cheveley.

Allen has been raising hackles in the breeding establishment for some time with his calls for artificial breeding technologies, such as AI and embryo transfer, to be introduced in a limited way to thoroughbred breeding.

He is now renewing that call, and as he points out in a letter sent widely to British breeders today, there are already numerous artificial technologies - he names nine, including "[application of] Regumate and othersynthetic progestagens to mimic dioestrus, suppress oestrous behaviour, induce follicular development and supplement the mare's own progesterone levels during pregnancy", and "immunisation with stallion white blood cells to prevent repeated early abortion in immunologically deficient mares" - used to help conception along.

With the economy stuck in the doldrums, at best, and the anticipated backlash against heedless overproduction, it seems the breeding industry would welcome the chance to discuss ways of making the process more efficient.

Yet there have recently been two major breeding industry get-togethers, the European Federation of Thoroughbred Breeders' Associations meeting and the International Breeders' Meeting, and no word on the issue has emerged from those quarters.

It seems about time Allen's views at least got an open hearing and debate, rather than the slammed door treatment.

 

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