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Horse owners look set to benefit from an unexpected government handout under the Common Agricultural Policy single payment scheme, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has announced.

Owners of land on which horses and ponies graze will be eligible to apply for the payment, and the money, which will be paid per hectare, could be released as early as next year.

The amount of money that landowners may receive cannot be confirmed until the claims are made, but rural advisers BCM Bays Curry McCowen of Winchester believe the figures could be in the region of about £7 per acre in 2005, rising gradually to £70 per acre in 2012.

Andrew Bays of BCM Bays Curry McCowen, says: “This will be a welcome boost to all those involved with horses. The annual payments, although initially small in 2005, will rise to significant sums as time goes by. To qualify, however, owners of such land must register the land in early 2005.”

The payments will apply to grazed land only, so areas where the main use is recreational, such as racecourses and show jumping arenas, will be excluded.

However, private paddocks and fields used by equine businesses such as livery stables are eligible, provided they are used for grazing and the land in question is kept in “good agricultural and environmental condition”.

Defra minister Alun Michael said: “This is good news for the horse industry and demonstrates the government’s commitment to boost the role of the horse in British society. Horses provide healthy recreation for people of all ages and abilities; they are an integral part of our traditional landscape and make an important contribution to the rural economy.”