Bill to tackle illegal horse grazing in England

Fly grazing in Kent.
Fly grazing in Kent.

Equine welfare charities and countryside organisations have welcomed a private members bill which they hope will tackle what they call the scourge of fly grazing in England.

The coalition of groups welcomed the move for Parliament to debate solutions to the illegal fly grazing of horses through the bill, launched in the House of Commons this week.

The bill was introduced by Julian Sturdy, MP for York Outer, who has done a huge amount of work with local groups to help address this growing problem.

Welfare charities estimate that in England alone at least 3000 horses are being illegally grazed on public and private land without the permission of the landowner, a practice called fly grazing in the UK.

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA), National Farmers’ Union and Countryside Alliance have joined with the RSPCA, World Horse Welfare, Redwings, the British Horse Society and Blue Cross to support the bill, after they supported similar legislation in Wales, which became law in January.

Fly grazing has proliferated since the economic downturn, causing welfare problems for horses, damage to crops and fencing, loss of use of land and risks to the public.

The group said resolving the situation was normally a lengthy and costly process, due to the inadequacy of existing legislation to tackle the problem and the fact that the irresponsible owners of these horses do not comply with equine identification laws – meaning they are not held to account.

The bill comes as equine charties continue to report a horse crisis, with farmers and other landowners struggling to remove horses placed on their land without permission.

The RSPCA alone has more than 800 horses in its care and receives about 500 complaints relating to horse welfare each week. Similarly, World Horse Welfare rescued 76 percent more horses last year compared to 2012.

“We hope that this bill and our growing coalition will be a wake-up call to [agriculture agency] Defra that they cannot keep playing Pollyanna on the huge problem with fly grazing,” World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers said.

“The laws we have do not protect horses, taxpayers, local authorities, farmers or landowners. The only people they end up providing any protection to are the perpetrators.

“It is now time for effective laws with real teeth that impose significant consequences on irresponsible owners by allowing authorities to immediately seize the horses they leave on others’ land without permission.

“Not only will this enable quicker, cheaper resolution of these cases, it will serve as a strong deterrent and help to protect horse welfare.”

CLA president Henry Robinson said his organisation had been raising the issue for some time and it was pleased to see the bill introduced.

“In recent years CLA Members, who own or manage approximately half the rural land in England and Wales, have reported serious problems with fly grazing.

“The horses are often dumped in large numbers and frequently have serious welfare problems. They are left in open spaces or fields which are not designed to contain them and they represent a clear risk to the public, and particularly motorists.

“Our members face considerable obstacles in having these animals removed from their property, not least because the current legal process for seeking their removal is not fit for purpose. It is mired with uncertainty and, all too frequently, eye-watering costs.”

RSPCA public affairs chief David Bowles said: “We have been fighting for several years now for the Government to introduce legislation to help tackle the horse crisis.

“This bill provides the Government with the opportunity to help local authorities, landowners and animal welfare organisations to tackle the fly grazing problem.

“It is now up to the Government to decide if they want to help enforcement of this problem or continue to bury their heads in the sand. Horse owners need to be made accountable for their own animals and power needs to be given back to enforcers and land owners to tackle this problem.

“For too long, charities like the RSPCA have been left to pick up the pieces when horses are left without food, water and veterinary care and we just don’t have the resources to carry on doing this indefinitely so this is a step in the right direction.”

Redwings chief executive Lynn Cutress welcomed the bill. “We can only hope that the government sees fit to follow the example set by Wales and clamp down on the unacceptable practice of fly grazing at last. The charities cannot just continue picking up the pieces.”

Lee Hackett, director of equine policy with the British Horse Society said it had worked with other charities for a long time to make politicians aware of the seriousness of the horse crisis.

“There are literally thousands of horses out there in desperate need of help and yet the existing legislation has not allowed us to assist as quickly and effectively as the horses desperately need us to.

“It is simply not fit for purpose. Additionally, the costs to landowners who are affected by fly grazing can be enormous and they are victims just like the horses.

“We are delighted that Julian Sturdy has introduced this bill and we hope that Government will finally realise just how important it is to introduce new legislation to deal with a problem that should not be happening in 21st-century Britain.

“To fail to legislate and continue to allow horses to suffer unnecessarily is just not acceptable in a nation that prides itself as one of animal lovers.”

Countryside Alliance executive chairman Sir Barney White-Spunner said there was widespread recognition of the seriousness of the problem of fly grazing for land managers and in terms of public safety and horse welfare.

“There is full agreement among stakeholders and across all parties that legislation is needed.

“The Government should take the opportunity presented by this bill by giving it adequate parliamentary time so that a real step forward in horse welfare can be achieved before the General Election. It is time for the Government to listen and to take action.”

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