Animal welfare charities and rural groups have launched a landmark report to highlight a problem which is causing misery for horses and serious problems for landowners and the general public.
The six major charities and country’s largest rural organisations, including the NFU, have released a report on ‘fly-grazing’, the practice of leaving horses on someone else’s land without permission - which is on the increase among some irresponsible horse owners.
The report called ‘Stop the scourge – time to address unlawful fly-grazing in England’ reveals over 3,000 horses are being fly-grazed causing “misery for horses, landowners, animal welfare organisations and local authorities”.
The group want to see new or updated legislation to tackle unlawfully grazed horses in England along the lines of the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014. This would enable Local Authorities and landowners to take swift and cost-effective action to deal with fly-grazing horses, and act as a better deterrent.
Calls to welfare charities about fly-grazing have also risen by two thirds in the past three years following concerns that horses are being abandoned.
This is the first time the charities and rural organisations have joined together on this issue and comes ahead of a Parliamentary committee discussion on fly-grazing on Wednesday 3 September. NFU Deputy President, Minette Batters, will be representing the NFU's concerns at the meeting.
The report reveals that the horse meat scandal, the economic downturn, overbreeding and the high costs of keeping horses has created a perfect storm for horses to be abandoned.
The organisations are hopeful that the new Secretary of State for the Environment will support changes to the law, as she understands the problems fly-grazing can cause particularly since the problem has arisen in her own constituency: a multi-agency approach to address a problem near Norwich only moved the horses into her Norfolk base of Thetford.
Parliament will debate a proposed change in the law in October when MP Julian Sturdy’s Control of Horses Bill, supported by all the organisations behind the report, will have its Second Reading.
Under the current law, landowners are powerless to remove horses from their land quickly and effectively and it is often impossible to link irresponsible owners to their animals; the closure of the UK’s national database of horses in 2012 impeded the effective enforcement of equine identification legislation.
Particular fly-grazing ‘hot spots’ have grown in the Midlands and the Thames Estuary with hundreds of animals kept on verges, parkland or farmland in the worst hit areas. A map of ‘hot spots’ has been produced to illustrate the scale of the problem.
Fly-grazed horses threaten the livelihood of farmers, damage land, divert local authority resources and risk the safety of motorists when they escape on to roads.
Equine charities also have to pick up the pieces caused by a complete lack of provision for the animals’ welfare and this can include veterinary treatment and providing extra food where there is a lack of grazing and water.
In many cases, there is intimidation of landowners if they try to take action and of those trying to help the horses.
Roly Owers, World Horse Welfare Chief Executive, speaking on behalf of the rural organisations and welfare charities said: “It is time for Government to do its part to help stop the scourge of fly-grazing in our countryside, farms and urban areas, because we cannot solve this problem alone using existing laws.
“For years rural organisations and welfare charities have been calling on Defra to bring in tougher laws on fly-grazing that will enable landowners, including local authorities, to act more quickly to resolve these situations and serve as a real deterrent.
“We are now concerned that the numbers fly-grazing in the North, Midlands and South East of the England appear to be growing while numbers in Wales are on the decrease after it introduced its own tougher fly-grazing laws in January this year.
“With Julian Sturdy’s Private Members Bill the Government has an opportunity to address this issue in England and make a real difference for rural communities and for horse welfare.
“It is not sustainable to leave it to charities to deal with whilst they are at capacity with so many of the worst cases, nor continue to burden our local authorities with long-winded processes when they are already cash-strapped.
“We believe the upcoming Parliamentary activity on this issue will show that the status quo is not an option.
“The Government should give the time and support necessary to get this Bill onto the Statute Book before the end of this Parliament”.