The RSPCA has refuted claims that it did not enforce the Animal Welfare Act 2006 strongly enough at this year’s Appleby Horse Fair, where a horse drowned in the River Eden.

Washing horses in the river is a long-held ritual at the fair, but on Friday, 8 June a piebald slipped and drowned after being dragged into the water. Pictures of the incident appeared widely in the national press and caused public outrage.

RSPCA chief inspector Brian Jeffries said: “I get angry when the RSPCA is criticised because DEFRA has the statutory responsibility for upholding the Act. But things are improving at the fair — this year we had six recorded crimes on the back of the new legislation. We’re in a much stronger position to intervene now.”

He added: “Before the Act, we had to wait until a vet declared an animal to be suffering before we could step in to help it.”

This year’s fair at Appleby (7–13 June) was the first since the Animal Welfare Act 2006 came into force on 6 April. The new legislation makes it a legal requirement for owners to meet the needs of their animals, and allows vets to intervene and prosecute earlier.

But vet Roger Baker, joint chairman of Conservative Animal Welfare (CAW), told H&H of his concern over how the law is enforced.

“The Act covers most of the things that went wrong at Appleby, so why haven’t the RSPCA done something about it?” he said.

But he added: “A charity should not be left to enforce the law.”

The RSPCA erected a marquee at the fair to educate travellers about the 2006 Animal Welfare Act.

Chief inspector Jeffries admitted: “It’s going to need some explaining, but the majority of the travellers are compliant.

“I’m really upset about the drowning, but you have to remember there are invariably deaths at the Grand National and there were even two deaths at Badminton this year. And both of these are governed and regulated – Appleby isn’t. Nobody manages the event. It just happens.”

Mr Jeffries said his major concern was now the steep concrete path into the River Eden, where horses’ front legs can buckle beneath them. The RSPCA has now secured funding to build a permanent ramp, and is awaiting planning permission from the council.

As H&H went to press on Monday, the RSPCA confirmed that no arrests had been made over the drowning, but that it was “following up leads”.

Read this news story in full, including the views of other animal welfare charities including the ILPH and Redwings Horse Sanctuary, in the current issue of Horse & Hound (21 June, ’07)