Vets and charities fear that Northern Ireland has insufficient numbers of animal welfare officers to police new laws that come into force this spring.

The part of the Welfare of Animals Act 2011. that protects companion animals comes into Northern Irish law on 2 April.

“There will be just five officers to cover 26 councils and an area the size of Yorkshire,” said David Wilson of the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (USPCA).

DARD [the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development] regards horses as companion animals and has washed its hands of them with this legislation, putting the responsibility on local councils.”

There is just one equine welfare organisation in Northern Ireland – Crosskennan Lane Animal Sanctuary. It has experienced a 150% rise in calls in two years.

Mr Wilson added: “It’s an untried system. We hope it will not backfire and the problem be dumped on charities.”

Two years ago, the UK’s Equine Health and Welfare Review Group described horse welfare as being at breaking point in the province.

In March 2011, three horses were found dead and 48 others in squalid conditions at a farm in North Antrim.

Another 60 were removed from an Antrim farm in November 2011, 23 of which went to Redwings, based in Norfolk.

Redwings’ Nic de Brauwere, who is chairman of the UK’s National Equine Welfare Council, said: “We endorse DARD’s moves to improve welfare in the region.

“But councils are concerned there will not be enough money for them to do their job effectively. They must be able to do so.”

And Ben Mayes, president of the British Equine Veterinary Association, said: “This puts Northern Irish welfare on an equal footing with the rest of country, but it must be policed.”

A spokesman for DARD said: “Councils have had 12 months to prepare for their enforcement role.

“At this stage, they have decided to recruit five inspectors. This will be kept under review.”

He said DARD has set aside £760,000 for 2011-12, rising by £20,000 each year until 2014.

This news story was first published in the current issue of H&H (9 February 2012)