Co Durham police rounded up dozens of horses yesterday (Thursday 26 February) after residents complained that they could cause a major road accident.

More than 50 officers taking part in ‘Operation Beausaddle’ descended on a site near Bishop Auckland and moved the animals in a fleet of articulated lorries to a secret location in what is believed to have been the biggest operation of its kind in the UK.

Their action followed reports of animals straying on to the A689 near Bishop Auckland, where motorists have reported two near-misses.

The officers sealed off a 185-acre site near the village of Hunwick just after 5am and rounded up about 40 horses and 20 sheep.

The A689 road was closed until 9.30am with all traffic diverted through the nearby village of Toronto.

Co Durham police say they evicted the herd using civil powers following agreement with the landowner, Durham County Council, Wear Valley District Council, and the RSPCA following a surge in complaints from residents who were incensed that horse owners had refused to heed warnings.

Chief Inspector Bill Dutton warned that further action was possible elsewhere in County Durham.

“Apart from being a nuisance, and the time wasted in dealing with straying horses, their presence on the roads is an increasing hazard,” he said.

Death is the very real potential cost of not acting.

“Notices were put up to warn horse owners to move their animals from this land but they were ignored,” he said. “Warning letters were sent out to local communities asking them to remove animals — but none were taken away.

“I hope today’s action sends a strong warning to irresponsible horse owners who think they can flout the law.”

MP for North-West Durham, Hilary Armstrong, said she backed the police’s action.

“I am very pleased the police have tackled the long-standing problem of stray horses in this area,” she said.

“They are a menace to local people and this operation demonstrates that owners should take responsibility and that, if they don’t, there will be consequences.”

The horses’ owners will now need to produce a horse passport to claim their animals back and will also have to pay a heavy fine.