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Animal welfare groups have expressed dismay that if a horse is killed in Northern Ireland and its body is lying in the road it is officially categorised as litter.

Four horses were killed in an accident on the main by-pass for the town of Newry in February, two dying instantly and two euthanised on the spot.

The local authority removed the horses and sent the bill to the Roads Service — which is responsible for public roads in Northern Ireland. But it promptly returned the bill saying the horses were litter.

David Wilson of the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (USPCA) said: “This is very, very unfortunate terminology for a dead horse. It seems as soon as they’re dead they become litter. This was on a major road and yet the local council was told it’s your problem.”

A Roads Service spokesperson said: “A dead animal carcass falls within the definition of litter as defined in Article 2(2) of the Litter (Northern Ireland) Order 1994. Article 7 of the same order places a duty on district councils to ensure that all roads within their area are, so far as is practical, kept clear of litter.

“It follows that responsibility for removal of fallen animals lies with district councils.”

The dead horses were removed by a council contractor at a cost of £500.

However the Mayor of Newry and Mourne, Charlie Casey, said he found it “fairly distressing” that dead horses would be classed in the same way as burger wrappers.

In England, Mark Powell of the Highways Agency said: “We have protocols with the British Horse Society (BHS) and the RSPCA. And we certainly wouldn’t classify dead horses as litter. We would arrange for their appropriate removal.”