Equine charities in Britain fear a winter of misery is ahead for thousands of horses, and want authorities and the public to step up to avert what they call the approaching equine crisis.
The charities estimate about 6000 horses could be at risk as Britain heads into winter, and warn that they are already at breaking point in being able to care for neglect cases.
The six charities – the British RSPCA, Redwings, The Blue Cross, World Horse Welfare, HorseWorld, and the British Horse Society – have laid out the growing problem in a report entitled “Left On the Verge: the approaching Equine Crisis in England and Wales“.
It predicts that another harsh winter will leave animal charities physically unable to cope and asks what will happen to the increasing numbers of horses being abandoned or suffering from neglect.
They have called on the public to rehome more horses and for horse owners to take responsibility for their animals and not pass the problem on to local authorities, charities and landowners.
The charities have also called on the Government and other agencies to help rein in the problem before another winter takes its toll on horses.
World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers said: “The organisations are already at breaking point with a severe shortage of available places and we are aware of an additional 6000 horses which could be at risk over the winter.
“These are all groups of horses that are on the edge of becoming welfare concerns, either because their owners are struggling to look after them or because they are not getting the care they need and ownership is unclear.
“We could not cope if even a fraction of this number needed to be rescued.
“We are urging members of the public who can offer a horse a home to please do so now.”
Redwings Horse Sanctuary’s head of welfare Nicolas de Brauwere, who is also chairman of the National Equine Welfare Council, said: “It is an extremely serious state of affairs.
“In February this year, for example, we had a situation where a group of more than 60 horses and ponies that had been left to fend for themselves in Wales were facing euthanasia by the local authority which had found itself in an impossible situation through the irresponsible actions of a callous owner.
“On that occasion several charities stepped up at the last moment and offered them a home, but we had to stretch ourselves and our teams to the limit to do so.
“Another case like that may be the final straw, which is why we urgently need the help and support of both the public and the government as this winter approaches.
“Absolutely no-one wants to see horses put to sleep but local authorities may be faced with some very difficult decisions if the situation does not improve.”
All the organisations have seen worrying trends in horse welfare:
- The RSPCA took in more than twice the number of horses, 304, between April 2011 and March 2012 as it did the previous year.
- World Horse Welfare has seen the numbers of horses taken into its centres rise by 50 per cent from 129 in 2006 to 194 in 2011 and has had to restrict admissions to the most severe cases.
- Redwings has seen a 28 per cent increase in equines being taken in from 2006 to 2011 and has seen abandonments rise from 160 in 2009 to 450 in 2011.
- Last winter, HorseWorld saw a threefold increase in the number of abandoned and neglected horses it rescued, compared with the previous year.
The charities say horses are still being bred on a large scale and continue to be imported from Ireland and the continent, despite there being no market for them. This has led to the market becoming saturated, with animals being sold at some markets for as little as £5.
Horses can cost up to £100 a week for care and in the current financial climate, people try to cut back on vet costs, hoof care and feed. This inevitably leads to welfare problems.
Both factors have led to a visible increase in the problem of fly grazing – illegal grazing of horses on public and private land. Fly grazing is a problem for farmers, landowners and local authorities, and increasingly it is leading to welfare concerns, as too often these owners do not provide basic care for their animals.
RSPCA head of public affairs David Bowles, said: “We have a perfect storm of horses continuing to be bred and imported to the UK adding to a rising population, and people – suffering under the economic climate – cutting back on animal care bills.
“People need to start realising that there is very little financial reward in breeding horses and ponies, especially where there is poor husbandry or the animals have genetic problems.
“You won’t make your fortune. All you will have is lots of horses and animals on your hands which need feeding, shelter and care and which you will not be able to sell.”
The charities urged the Government to introduce criminal legislation targeting fly grazing, punishing offenders with fines and seizure of horses.
They called for legislation or mechanisms to better link horses to owners in order to tackle irresponsible ownership.
The groups also proposed better intelligence-led enforcement of horse imports and exports and a review of the tripartite agreement that allows the import and export of vulnerable horses and ponies into and out of Britain from Ireland and France.
Responsible breeding through guidance and education needed to be encouraged and more assistance given to local authorities, including provision of places to keep horses on a temporary basis.
The situation would be helped by improved enforcement and co-operation between enforcement agencies and charities.
The groups said the horse-owning public could play an important part in rehoming horses and ponies, and keeping on top of their own situations. They were urged to contact charities for advice before their situation escalated into a welfare problem.
Members of the public were encouraged to write to their MP and ask them to lobby Secretary of State Owen Paterson about the national horse crisis and ask him to support tougher laws to encourage responsible ownership and improve enforcement.
Anyone able to provide a good new home to a horse or pony should visit http://www.newc.co.uk/category/rehome/