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Charity braced for a ‘horse welfare catastrophe’ despite new microchip laws

The RSPCA is bracing itself for a “horse welfare catastrophe” despite microchipping laws that come into force in England this week (1 October).

The charity expects its resources to be “crippled” by an influx of sick and dumped equines as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. And although from 1 October, all equines in England must be chipped regardless of their age, the charity does not believe this will be enough to change the behaviour of irresponsible breeders and owners “at the heart of” the equine crisis.

As the charity launches a month-long rehoming drive, Adoptober, it already has three times the number of horses in its care as it did in 2009, and it expects another recession to be on its way.

“At the same time, many animal welfare organisations have seen donations plummet during the pandemic, and there is already huge pressure on resources,” an RSPCA spokesman said.

“Animal welfare charities received no specific financial help during lockdown and the RSPCA is calling on the government to give financial support to the sector for its vital work during one of toughest years in RSPCA history.”

Charity CEO Chris Sherwood said about 70% of equines rescued by the RSPCA are not microchipped.

“When it came in for dogs, the number of strays reduced by 20% in four years, but unfortunately we just don’t think that’s going to happen for horses,” he said.

“Without rigorous enforcement and tough financial penalties, there is little to stop irresponsible horse owners continuing to breed and dump their animals. Local authorities, which are in charge of enforcement of equine identification regulations, are already operating with extremely limited resources, and facing the huge challenges of Covid, an expected recession and Brexit.

“The RSPCA and other equine welfare organisations have been struggling to pick up the pieces of the horse crisis since the last recession; the sector is already bursting at the seams and facing unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic.

“Equine charities fear autumn will create the perfect storm as grazing decreases, the end of furlough and [a possible] recession will mean more owners struggling with costs of care leading to neglect and abandonment, yet people have been continuing to breed horses despite Covid. Alongside this, equine rescues, already reporting a sharp drop in funds, may start to go under as the financial situation bites, which will increase the burden on the RSPCA.

“We are calling on the Government to step in with financial support as they have for other charities affected by the pandemic and recognise that the vital services provided by the animal welfare sector are under huge strain.”

In a recent Covid survey, by the National Equine Welfare Council (NEWC) and Association of Dogs and Cats Homes, nearly two thirds of equine rescues reported a drop of over 50% in donations. Many said they only had funds for six months or did not know how long their money would last.

NEWC chairman Nic de Brauwere said: “The Animal Welfare Acts are excellent tools to support prevention of equine suffering, and intervention when this has already occurred, but to be effective we need the owner of the horse to be identified, otherwise the only option for animal welfare charities is to treat the animal as abandoned, which incurs huge cost to organisations relying on donations from the public.

“Since equine identification legislation has come into effect, and especially now all equines in England should be microchipped, we have the tools needed to associate each equine with an owner. But the system is in its infancy, and playing catch-up with a large number of equines not properly documented. Local authorities, not animal welfare charities, have the power to enforce the regulations.

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“NEWC is very keen to launch conversations with them about how we can work together and support them in their bid to gain the capacity to do this work, so that we see the welfare improvement that these equine identification changes promise.”

Nesil Caliskan, chairman of the Local Government Association’s safer and stronger communities board, said: “We urge horse owners to comply with the new law and ensure that microchip details are kept up to date to help improve animal welfare.

“Microchipping not only reduces the huge cost to the public purse, it also reduces fees for unplanned stays in kennels or stables as microchipped animals can be returned to their owners more quickly than those which are not microchipped.

“The pandemic has exacerbated pressures on councils’ regulatory services, which in many places are now at tipping point. We want to work with the Government ahead of the spending review to ensure councils have enough funding to maintain vital trading standards and environmental health services, as local authorities continue to lead local work to tackle Covid-19.”

The RSPCA is appealing to experienced horse owners in England and Wales to consider rehoming a rescue horse if possible.

“This month as the charity’s rehoming campaign Adoptober launches, staff are keen to showcase the versatility and capability of the horses they rescue, whether they are ridden horses, companion animals or youngsters with heaps of potential,” a spokesman said.

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