The Animal Welfare Act was granted royal assent yesterday, making horse owners and keepers legally responsible for the welfare of their animals. Hailed by the RSPCA and Redwings as the single most important piece of legislation to protect animals for almost a century, the new law will come into force on 6 April 2007.

“At last people will have a legal duty to properly care for their animals and the RSPCA will be able to respond positively to reported incidents of neglect,” said RSPCA director general, Jackie Ballard.

At present welfare organisations such as the RSPCA cannot intervene when an owner is causing a horse to suffer, until significant weight loss, distress, injuries or untrimmed feet have been proven.

“The current law only allows action to be taken at quite a late stage,” explained a spokesperson from Redwings. “Our hands were often tied so that we were not able to act to prevent suffering.”

But from next April welfare groups will be able to step in before suffering occurs. Under the new Animal Welfare Act anyone who is responsible for a pet will have a legal responsibility to meet the basic welfare needs of pets, offering a proper diet, including fresh water and somewhere suitable to live. Any need to be housed with or apart from, other animals must be met, the animal should be permitted to express normal behaviour and it must be protected from and treated for illness and injury.

“Our whole purpose is to prevent animals from suffering at the hands of cruel or ignorant people, and this new law will help us in that mission. After all, the ‘P’ in the RSPCA stands for prevention – prosecution is a last resort,” Ms Ballard commented.

In addition, penalties will be awarded to owners found to be neglecting the basic needs of their horses. “At the moment very few owners are prosecuted because it is difficult to compile enough evidence to prove their animals are suffering. But now there will be more prosecutions and we will be able to step in earlier, when we anticipate suffering will occur.”

Both the RSPCA and Redwings believe the Animal Welfare Act will prevent animals from unnecessary suffering but they are still uncertain quite what effect the Act will have, “Until the new law is tested we will not know exactly how much better it will be than the current legislation,” said the Redwings spokesperson. “But owners mustn’t panic. We’re not out to get people – just to prevent suffering.”

For more information about the Animal Welfare Act, visit www.redwings.co.uk or contact the Redwings Welfare helpline (tel: 01508 481008).