Equestrian and rural campaign groups are fighting for political advantage as country issues begin to dominate the 2015 general election campaign.

The equestrian industry is estimated to contribute £7bn a year to the economy and provide more than 200,000 full-time jobs.

But, despite equestrianism’s large economic contribution, there are also welfare concerns.

Horse abandonment numbers are soaring and many rescue centres are at “crisis point”. Also, more than 3,000 horses are being illegally fly-grazed.

RSPCA chief inspector Cathy Hyde, who heads a specialist team of equine officers, said: “Over the past five years there has been a marked and very worrying increase in equine neglect and abuse. This is witnessed on a daily basis by frontline staff.

“This disturbing trend in neglect seems to be affecting equines more than any other animal that we deal with.”

The British Horse Industry Confederation has released a manifesto calling on the next government to “support the sector’s development” and “protect the health and welfare of all horses in the UK”.

Resources needed to tackle fly-grazing

The Control of Horses Bill is due to had its third reading in the House of Lords this week (Wednesday 18 March).

The Bill, which should receive Royal Assent soon, gives local authorities the power to seize or impound horses abandoned on public or private land without permission.

However, even with the Bill passed the issue of funding to support it is still “complex”.

“We are likely to see the approach to using any act being taken as a local matter, which can be influenced by local communities,” said a spokesman from World Horse Welfare.

Equine charities also want the government to continue to put pressure on creating a workable passport system.

Last September the European Union announced that by 2016 it would be compulsory for all countries to have a centralised equine database.

World Horse Welfare is urging the new government to learn from “past mistakes”.

Two previous databases have already failed in the UK. In 2001 the British Equine Database — which recorded data for sport horse breeding — closed after eight years when British Showjumping withdrew from the scheme.

The National Equine Database (NED) was launched in 2008 but folded in 2012 after Defra withdrew funding, saying it was “not effective” — a move that was slammed by vets and welfare groups.

“The priority for any new government should be to grasp the opportunity of the updated equine identification regulations to overhaul the current dysfunctional identification system in the UK,” said World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers.

“Without this, equine welfare, health and even human health are all put in jeopardy. The government must continue to work with the sector to ensure that we learnt the lessons from the past. An easily updateable central database and retrospective microchipping of all equines in the UK are vital for an effective equine identification system.”

World Horse Welfare has also raised concerns about the need for “effective intelligence-led checks” of horse exports and imports at British ports.

The issue was highlighted last week (11 March) when an MP proposed a Ten Minute Rule Bill arguing that a single agency was needed to address the “dysfunctional” enforcement at British ports.

In an address Gregory Barker said: “The UK can be proud of its laws that protect the welfare of every one of our country’s one million equines — including protecting them from indiscriminate export for slaughter. However in reality horses and ponies can effectively be shipped anywhere, for any purpose, in any condition because there are no clear lines of responsibility.”

Mr Owers added: “The authorities simply do not appreciate the scale of the trade in horses and ponies of a low financial value, much of which is under the radar and so is not reflected in any official figures.”

Regulations need to be bolstered

The dangers of a dysfunctional identification system and poor control of equine exports were exposed by the 2013 horsemeat scandal.

Last September an independent government report into the issue by Prof. Chris Elliot stated that “urgent and comprehensive changes to the UK food system” were needed to “protect consumers from serious organised crime”.

However, concerns have been raised that not enough money has been allotted to deal with the issues.

A source close to the enquiry told H&H that a lot “will depend on what happens at the next election”.

“There is no money available, so any action that the government takes will have to be paid for by taking money from another project.”

The Countryside Alliance (CA) wants the government to make it compulsory for all labelling of meat products to show where the animal was reared and slaughtered.

“Since the horsemeat scandal, consumers are taking much more notice of where the meat they eat originates from,” the CA’s Sarah Lee told H&H.

“We have written to Defra, urging it to press the European Commission to make country of origin labeling mandatory for all meat.”

➤ The CA has launched a new e-campaign, enabling you to contact your local parliamentary candidates on rural issues. Visit: www.countryside-alliance.org

➤ For more information on the British Horse Industry Confederation Strategy visit: www.bhic.co.uk

Ref: Horse & Hound; 19 March 2015