Sixty horses were rescued from “a sea of filth” in Northern Ireland last week, in what is believed to be the largest equine lift in the 174-year history of the Ulster Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals (USPCA).

Pictures released by the charity show emaciated and filthy horses standing in their own excrement. Four more dead and decomposing horses were also found on a farm near Mallusk in County Antrim.

The horses had suffered from overpopulation, a severe shortage of fodder and essential veterinary care.

The USPCA was called in by social services after the elderly owner of the farm was voluntarily taken into psychiatric care.

The animals could not be moved until Friday (24 Sept) due to legal difficulties, including establishing legal ownership. USPCA officers cared the horses for before they removed to other sanctuaries.

USPCA spokesman David Wilson, who took part in the rescue, told H&H there were no plans for a prosecution.

Mr Wilson said: “I don’t want to pillory the owner in this case. I’ve seen this many times before when a person has been involved with horses all their life then, as they get older, they can’t really cope but don’t want to relinquish their responsibilities.

“It’s sad but at least the animals are out of there now.”

The rescue was carried out in conjunction with the USPCA’s colleagues, the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Crosskennan Lane Animal Sanctuary and Holly’s Horse Haven.

USPCA chief executive Stephen Philpott said: “Without our intervention these animals would not have survived the winder that lies ahead.

“We will do our utmost to ensure they find new homes with families who appreciate the time and financial commitment required.”

He warned that animal neglect is likely to increase as the recession continues.

The charity is not releasing the name of the farm for “operational reasons”.