The government has been branded short-sighted by virtually every sector of the horse industry for its perceived about-face on mandatory microchipping.

Leaders from veterinary, welfare, breeding and racing circles, together with the British Equestrian Federation (BEF), British Horse Society (BHS) and British Horse Industry Confederation (BHIC), last week expressed shock at DEFRA’s submission to the European Commission (EC) that “the UK does not support mandatory microchipping of all foals”.

All told H&H that the government had given no indication of its stance during a far-reaching consultation process seeking industry views on the proposed EU regulation that all foals born after 1 January 2007 must be microchipped.

The consensus prior to DEFRA’s 5 September electronic bulletin — which was overlooked by many — was that it was in full support.

“Hopefully the EC will ignore the UK government and go ahead with mandatory microchipping anyway,” said British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) president Chris Rea.

Microchipping was hailed during the consultation process as “the most reliable and tamper-proof method of identification”, the best means of authenticating horse passports and of ensuring the accuracy and success of the National Equine Database (NED).

It would also help with tracing animals in the event of a disease outbreak and in the monitoring of medicines and drugs entering the food chain through horsemeat. On welfare grounds, it could lead to more prosecutions of horse dumping or neglect cases.

Jo White, head of campaigns and European affairs at the International League for the Protection of Horses (ILPH), described DEFRA’s “short-sighted” position as “a shot out of the dark”. She said the industry now found itself in the bizarre situation of having to lobby other EU member states on its behalf.

BHIC chairman Graham Cory agreed: “We need to consider making a response directly to the EC to say that we disagree with our government.”

In response, a DEFRA spokesman said: “We never came out and said we support compulsory microchipping and don’t know why people assume that to be the case. We see the benefits of microchipping for security and protection but in our view it should be voluntary and not compulsory.”

The EC is expected to deliver its verdict this autumn. DEFRA is seeking a delayed 2010 implementation date once the regulation is finalised.