Horse owners have joined the RSPCA and the fire service in condemning plans to host a sky lantern festival at an historic Rutland estate.

The event, due to take place at Belvoir Castle on July 7, is the first date to be named in a series of 13 planned to take place across the UK this summer.

Organised by US-based company The Light Fest, the £20 to £40-a-ticket gathering will involve the release of hundreds of controversial lanterns into the night sky.

Opponent and local rider Heather Wright, who keeps her six horses a few minutes’ drive from the castle grounds, said the festival “worries her more than fireworks”.

“While I bet it’s an amazing thing to watch, they shouldn’t do it mid-harvest and they should pick a better location where there is clear land so you can see for sure where they settle,” she said.

“Even the biodegradable lanterns can take years to degrade — if they fall into a farmer’s field and get chopped up into hay, there’s a risk of horses eating them.

“They could set a hayfield or a thatched roof on fire — there are a lot of risks.”

Heather has launched a petition against the festival, which has so far attracted more than 1,200 signatures.

“I wanted to see if people were with us or against us, and it seems a lot of people are with us on this, including the fire service, local farmers and the RSPCA,” Heather added. “I’m hoping we can get it stopped — people have told me they’ve fought successfully against these events in other areas.”

A spokesman for the The Light Fest defended the plans, saying that the lanterns used are “very different from the generic sky lanterns that could be purchased online”.

The company describes them as “extremely safe and 100% biodegradable”, made from rice paper, string and bamboo rings, with no metal elements.

“The rice-paper body of the lantern is fire-resistant to prevent the flame from travelling from the small fuel-source suspended in the middle. We have a very thorough clean-up crew who gather the lanterns within 24 hours of the event and dispose of them properly,” the spokesman said.

“We have designed the fuel source in such a way that the flame is completely out before the lanterns descend and land. Regardless, we always have a fire crew waiting in the landing zone [which is supposed to be within the boundaries of the event] as a precaution.”

But both the fire service and the RSCPA have spoken out against sky lanterns, saying they pose a persistent hazard.

The animal charity has called for a ban on the floating lights, which it said cause “injury, suffering and death to animals.”

“The lanterns are especially dangerous when they come back down to earth,” a spokesman for the RSPCA said. “Animals can also become entangled in fallen lantern frames and suffer from injury and stress struggling to get free, or starve to death.”

Alan Fawkner, risk manager at Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service, said they were aware of the event, and had contacted Belvoir Castle to “discourage the use” of the lanterns.

“We do not support or endorse this event, or any of its type,” he said. “We stand by the national statement from the National Fire Chiefs Council that these floating lanterns not only constitute a fire hazard but also pose a risk to livestock, agriculture, camping activities, thatched properties and hazardous material sites.”

In response to H&H’s request for a comment, a Belvoir Castle spokesman sent a further statement from the festival organisers.

“The Lights Fest takes pride in being a family friendly, no alcohol event,” it read. “We work with local officials to make sure all concerns are addressed concerning safety and the environment.

“We have spent a great deal of time customising our lanterns so we can control and predict distance and reduce any fire danger. In addition, the whole lantern is biodegradable and poses no danger to animals.

“The lantern style that we are bringing to the event at Belvoir Castle will travel approximately 300 to 500 yards and will not leave the venue boundaries. But nonetheless we clean up every lantern and leave the venue in the same condition or better than we found it.”

Last year, organisers of the Shine Up Festival — a mass lantern release event scheduled to be held at the Kent Event Centre — cancelled after more than 2,000 people signed a petition against it.

“The reaction of misinformed residents made it impossible to put the event on,” a Shine Up spokesman told H&H at the time. “We didn’t really have the time or opportunity to talk to people or give them the information we gave the venues.”

British Horse Society (BHS) safety director Alan Hiscox said the BHS has received 21 reports over the past six years from horse owners on incidents involving Chinese lanterns.

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“Of these, sadly there have been three horse fatalities and six horses injured,” he added. “There is simply no way of controlling where they go and where they land.

“Our advice to horse owners is to be vigilant. Check fields and hedgerows for these lanterns regularly, as part of daily field management.

“We urge all horse owners to report any incidents or any problems involving Chinese lanterns to the BHS horse accidents website.”

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