DEFRA has published a leaflet to remind horse owners that there are only 14 weeks left in which to apply for horse passports, which become mandatory from 1 January 2004.

The leaflet, entitled What does this mean for you, outlines the importance of getting passports, and answers key questions about the application process.

Owners must ensure that all their horses, ponies and donkeys have valid passports. The deadline for applications is 31 December 2003, and from 1 January 2004 it will be illegal to sell an equine without a passport.

There are more than 70 organisations with the authority to issue horse passports, and costs vary. A complete list is available from the DEFRA website.

Approximately 75% of equine veterinary medicines used in the UK have not been approved for horses destined for human consumption, and passports are designed to ensure that horses treated with these medicines never enter the human food chain.

There are no figures yet available to suggest what percentage of the UK’s estimated 750,000 to 1million equines now have passports. “DEFRA does not currently have statistics to show how many owners have thus far made applications,” says a spokesperson for the department. “With so many outlets having the authority to issue horse passports, it is difficult to coordinate exact figures at this stage.”

Failure to obtain a passport before the deadline could result in a £5,000 fine or one month’s imprisonment. “Ultimately, owners without horse passports after the end of the year are at risk of prosecution,” explains the spokesperson. “We are continuing to raise awareness of the issue in order to minimise the number of cases where such action would have to be considered.”

Copies of the leaflet can be downloaded from DEFRA’s website at www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/tracing/horses_index.htm