In 2009, the number of calls reporting abandoned or compromised horses increased by 150% — mainly due to the recession and overbreeding.
But there is only one equine welfare presence in the Province — Crosskennan Lane Animal Sanctuary — with two volunteer members of staff and capacity for just 30 horses.
“Our resources are being sucked up by welfare cases,” said Janice Watt of Crosskennan. “But if we fold, there is nothing. Northern Ireland is a no-man’s land for equine welfare. We need emergency help.”
Current welfare regulations, the Welfare of Animals Act (NI) 1972, desperately need updating, she added.
But vets say the Department for Agriculture and Rural Development’s (DARD) proposed new Welfare of Animals Bill, due to be instituted in summer 2011, is too vague.
A draft of the bill says owners must “take reasonable steps to ensure the needs of a protected animal are met, to the extent required by good practice”, but does not outline what “good practice” means.
“We have to ask why this proposed legislation is not the same as in England, Wales and Scotland?” said Paul Jepson, EHWRG chairman and chief executive of the Horse Trust, which funds Crosskennan to the tune of £20,000 a year.
“Northern Ireland is part of the UK, yet its welfare standards are not compatible.”
A spokesman for DARD, which has no equine welfare officers, said the welfare bill is at an early stage, but added: “Our vets are not aware of any welfare crisis in the riding establishments it has licensed.”
But the EHWRG says some of the worst neglect is found in “holding yards”, where horses are gathered for slaughter.
DARD has no powers of access to these yards, but said these premises may be regulated under the proposed new welfare bill.
Another question is enforcement. Currently the police are the first port of call in a welfare case, but DARD has not consulted them over the new legislation.
Nicolas de Brauwere is head of welfare at Redwings Horse Sanctuary, which has taken in some of Crosskennan’s horses over the past few months.
He said: “For the legislation to be effective and enforceable, the net needs to be spread wider, seeking people with expertise and experience.”
He said the National Equine Welfare Council, of which he is chairman, has offered support to Crosskennan where possible.
This article was first published in Horse & Hound (14 January, ’10)