This article first appeared in the summer issue of My Countryside, the Countryside Alliance membership magazine. Image above is of former huntsman Julian Barnfield with the North Shropshire hounds.
Ex-huntsman Julian Barnfield has turned his passion for breeding hounds into a new career in canine artificial insemination.
When it comes to breeding a dog, there are plenty of factors to consider. Bloodlines, genetic traits, the health of the breed – and, of course, finding a dog that’s suitable, available, and within a commutable distance. But what about if some of those factors – the more practical ones – no longer existed? That is what Elite Kennel Fertility are aiming to do with their canine reproduction services through the use of – among other technologies – artificial insemination (AI).
Simplifying the finding of a doggy mate through the collecting and storing of semen doesn’t only have practical geographical benefits. It can also have huge benefits for the gene pools of breeds; particularly for rare breeds and those with inbreeding issues – and for dogs who can’t mate, or bitches who would rather not!
Julian Barnfield is one of the directors of Elite Kennel Fertility, and his background is very much in the world of canines and the countryside. Starting out at the Cotswold Hunt as a groom at the age of 16, he progressed through the ranks of the hunt servant’s career, finishing off as Master Huntsman at the North Shropshire.
Picture: Clockwise from top left: Tullis Matson, Julian Barnfield, Kate Ashmore and Ellie Mitchell at Elite Kennel Fertility
His career in hunting spanned 34 years; but towards the end of it he met Tullis Matson. Tullis was in the North Shropshire mastership with Barnfield – but also ran a successful company offering equine AI services and other equine reproduction products.
His company – Stallion AI Services – is one of the leading equine reproduction companies in Europe. Having noticed a massive surge in demand for canine reproduction equipment, Tullis thought about expanding into dogs – and decided that Barnfield was the man for the job. “Tullis said to me: I haven’t got the time and I don’t have a huge amount of experience with dog breeding. You have both,” Julian explains. “I had always wanted to be finished in hunt service by 55. A great man once said to me: ‘Go when people are saying “Why?” and not “When?”.’ I’ve always had a passion for canine reproduction and genetics; bloodlines and the shrinking gene pools in various breeds. I spent an awful lot of time looking at bloodlines in foxhounds and trying to get the right matches, and then to be able to see the results of that was fantastic. The whole science of collecting and freezing and doing things with canine semen is fairly new to me, but it captivates me really. That’s my passion.” It’s no surprise that he jumped at the chance to be involved with Tullis’s new company.
It might be a whole new game for Julian, but AI in horses is rumoured to go back to the 1300s, when Arab tribes were alleged to have stolen semen from stallions belonging to enemy tribes, and then used it to inseminate their own mares. AI in dogs had its first successes in the 1700s with an Italian biologist called Lazzaro Spallanzani, who bred a litter of poodle puppies using the technique. But although AI is commonly seen in the equine world, in canines it hasn’t yet caught on in the same way.
“It has taken a while for people to grasp onto the fact that it’s out there”, explains Tullis. “Recently there has been a relaxation of the rules by the Kennel Club which has made a huge difference. People have realised they don’t have to breed with the dog down the road anymore.”
So how does it work? In terms of AI, there are three options: fresh, chilled and frozen. Freshly extracted semen can be assessed for its fertility, and used for immediate AI. Chilled semen is the aspect that would affect the transport side of mating most, with chilled semen lasting three or four days – or even longer. “You could virtually send chilled semen to America or Australia, which really opens up the possibilities.” And then there is frozen semen, which allows you to ‘bank’ semen to be used in a year or so – or even in 15 or 20 years’ time. “Once the semen is stored at minus 196 degrees in suspended animation, they can be brought back at any stage – even in a hundred years’ time,” Tullis explains.
The geographical opening up of breed lines could be huge. Gene pools within countries can then be exported, which could play a huge part in removing or improving negative genetic traits that have resulted from inbreeding. It also eliminates any dangers that can occur through natural matings, and takes out the stress of making sure two dogs meet within a set timeframe.
But what Elite Kennel Fertility really wants to do is to offer a high level of service, with the highest levels of welfare. Because canine reproduction isn’t as well regulated as it is in the equine world, there are lots of people “having a go” at canine AI, without necessarily having the experience or knowledge to do so.
“One of the key motivators for setting up the business was to bring canine AI into line with other species in the UK,” explains Kate Ashmore, the company’s stud manager. “We want to improve the quality of service that’s out there, and with that, the welfare standards of the dogs. We’ve really placed ourselves at the working dogs; mainly because we have experience and links within the working breeds.”
There are other possibilities, as well as the ‘standard’ procedure of extracting semen. The company offers epididymal semen harvesting – the removal of semen from the testes of dogs that have undergone routine castration, or have died unexpectedly. And, although it crosses a whole other threshold, they can offer cloning services; freezing tissues of animals which are then sent to America to be cloned. “If you have a really good sheepdog, it can be worth the money”, Tullis explains. “But there are lots of different technologies that can be used to preserve these canine bloodlines.” Another technology in the pipeline – although not quite here yet – is the sexing of semen. The police, for example, want male dogs, as they have the correct temperament and trainability. “We’ve got our first sexed Suffolk Punch foal due in July, which is going to be a historic moment as they are so rare. There are so few mares left in the country, so they all want fillies. We have to be very careful how the sexing of semen is used – but it could be groundbreaking for rare breeds.”
So could canine AI become as big as equine AI? While the transport of chilled semen opens up new gene pools for some breeds, the freezing of semen could be hugely beneficial in the future. In breeds with small gene pools, for example, a certain dog might not be valuable today because he has been used a lot, but if you froze that semen, it could be brought back 10 years later, and reintroduced to benefit the
breed once more.
And then foxhounds: could Peterborough champions of the future be the product of AI? Well, it turns out it’s already happened with British bloodlines and American hounds. “The Americans used AI way back,” says Julian. “When Patrick Martin was at the Bicester, an American pack came over and were taking semen off
dogs and sending it back to the States.”
Picture: Julian Barnfield's esteemed hunting career spanned 34 years before he changed direction
Patrick confirms that, in the late ’90s, Ben Hardaway III of the Midland Hunt in Georgia masterminded for semen to be collected from Bicester Faraday ’95. This was then frozen in a hotel room in Bicester before being shipped back to the USA. With the help of vet Dr Scott Dove, Midland Maple ’94 successfully had a litter.
But for AI to catch on within the foxhound packs, it needs some investment. “It would take the bigger packs to invest; banking their good stallion hounds,” explains Julian. “That would really benefit the smaller packs today. Because depending on geography, taking bitches to a dog, it’s probably a man and two days’
As well as the immediate day-to-day benefits, freezing could also be hugely beneficial in terms of hound lines. “The heritage of foxhound lines goes back generations. This is one way you can preserve those bloodlines for years to come.”