Shropshire experts sowing the seeds of success for rare breeds’ survival
It's known as the home of world-beating horses – but now a stallion business in Shropshire is working to preserve the future of some of the world's rarest animals.
Stallion AI Services near Whitchurch has embarked on a project alongside Chester Zoo and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust to explore how animals' genetic line can be continued after they die.
Perhaps best-known as the home of triumphant Olympian show jumping stallion Big Star, the dairy farm-turned equine specialist is now looking at ways its industry-shaping techniques can help in the long-term survival of endangered species.
The technique sees the recently-dead animals' reproductive organs frozen and sent to north Shropshire, where the team attempts to remove their seed to freeze and preserve.
"It started when an animal died and they wanted us to salvage its genetic line," said boss Tullis Matson.
"We did it with stallions, and somebody heard about that. We then had a go with a bull, and that was successful and saw the first calf to be born using that method.
"We have had various meetings, and recently had the first testicles to arrive with us from a capybara, to see if it would work, although they were too young unfortunately.
"They have a very old black rhino at Chester Zoo, and if anything should happen to it it would be something we might be able to help with. They seem to be very excited by this project.
"It's to do with gene pools. When they are too closely related that breeds its own issues around fertility, and that's one of the issues with the Suffolk punch breed of horses. It can have a snowball effect."
He added: "I went to a zookeepers' conference last year and that really highlighted how endangered some of the animals are that they are working on are.
"People see them as places where animals are kept in cages but many endangered animals would be extinct if it weren't for zoos.
"One thing they would like to do is to cryo-preserve some species' genetics in the wild – professors might be tracking something like a white snow leopard trying to get samples from it to freeze.
"If they can get the parts to us when an animal dies we can learn how to preserve those animals by natural means."
Stallion AI emerged from the former 360-acre dairy and pig farm at Twemlows Hall in 2000. Since then it has collected samples from 1,000 animals.
If the company's line of work might make some people feel a little off-colour, the company wears it like a badge of honour – business cards and merchandise are peppered with tiny images of semen.
Stallion AI recently invested £1.5 million to build new facilities including stables and a better laboratory to help it keep advancing – a move manager Kate Ashmore says is essential.
She said: "We are about to take on a PHD student, which is a massive investment for us but at the end of that we will have some really solid research in that will help us improve techniques in our lab.
"The key to our business is the research, and pushing the boundaries. If we stood still people would overtake us but we are pushing for the next big thing."
The business is one of only two centres in the world eligible to export samples around the world, and one of only 15 with access to the EU. International trade is growing, accounting for £3.5 million of sales last year.
Boss Tullis Matson has also helped establish laboratories in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Egypt and Germany, and is now working to preserve ailing horse breeds such as the Suffolk Punch, of which only 300 breeding females remain.
Big Star, the "man of the moment" according to Mr Matson, is one of a number of animals which currently make their home at the farm.
Aptly named, the world's top show jumping horse won gold at the London then Rio Olympics with rider Nick Skelton, who called the animal "the best horse he has ever ridden".
Now he is cared for by the team in Shropshire, who have helped him sire competition-winning foals. The valuable stallion is on camera 24 hours a day for his owner to watch.
But he is not the only horse in Stallion AI's stable to receive the red-carpet treatment.
Arko, another of Skelton's prize winners, also beds down at Stallion AI, as does another Olympian, Jaguar Mail, who represented Sweden in China in 2008.
"We have been very lucky, we have had a lot of different stallions through here from different disciplines," Mr Matson added.
"We have exported all over the world – shire horses, show jumpers, dressage, eventers.
"We are opening up to new countries – we are the first people to export to Kenya. Somebody out there wants to breed from our particular breeds.
"Even trying to get into that country in the first place involves quite a lot of work."
Absent from the list are champion racehorses. At present the racing world will not allow horses that have been bred using AI.
"One stallion using AI can cover up to 2,000 mares a year," Mr Matson said. "In the thoroughbred world it can cover maybe 200.
"The worry is that if they open the books to 2,000 mares the gene pool would shrink, there will be more horses by a particular stallion. It would have a knock-on effect on the value of young stock.
"A big part of the industry is transporting horses to get to certain stallions – they shuttle stallions to Australia and back. The transport would really feel it if it was permitted.
"We can do a collection at 3pm and it can arrive in Scotland, say, or Italy before lunchtime the following day.
"I think it will happen at some point in the future, maybe in 10 years or 50 years' time, even if it comes as something like a consequence of disease preventing the movement of horses.