I am holding my face in my hands in horror. Over the roar of lorries thundering past I can hear a horse going berserk inside the truck parked 25m away. The vehicle is weighed down with its cargo of 19 heavy horses, but it still shakes violently as the animal panics.
I’m in Slovenia, two-thirds of the way through a 1,700-mile journey from Poland to Italy with World Horse Welfare, tracking the live long-distance transport of horses across Europe.
With tears in my eyes, I turn to the charity’s director of campaigns, Jo White, who has taken this trip before. Her face says it all; neither of us can speak.
It’s Thursday 24 July — my colleagues will be watching the Royal International Horse Show at Hickstead — and the Slovenian translator with us has already passed six of these horse lorries on the road.
Some 100,000 horses are imported into and across the EU — with 84% going to Italy each year, mainly from Poland, Romania and Lithuania, but some from Belarus, the Ukraine and Croatia. The journey can take four to five days and, since a number of these countries joined the EU in 2004 and 2007, the abolition of border controls mean they face one long open road across Europe.
In January 2007, new laws to regulate this barbaric, unnecessary trade were introduced, but they are still openly flouted. Paid to get as many horses to their destination as fast as possible, some drivers do this journey without stopping — or giving the horses any food or water.
What should happen
Since 1 January 2007, the following rules have applied to horses transported in the EU, but are flouted, bent or not clearly defined.
Rule: Horses must be fit to travel
Abuse: Inspecting vet often “too close” to farmers to sign a horse as unfit
Rule: Horses must be transported in single, full partitions in journeys over eight hours
Abuse: Partitions, still tight, rarely extend to the floor, so horses can get stuck beneath if they fall. Different sized horses need different sized partitions
Rule: A minimum headroom must be given
Abuse: We saw donkeys without enough headroom
Rule: Unbroken horses cannot be transported for over eight hours
Abuse: “Unbroken” is not clearly defined and it’s virtually impossible to verify status of animals once loaded; youngstock frequently travel illegally
Rule: Horses must be given liquid and if necessary fed every eight hours on the road
Abuse: Lorries now carry water and food but it’s hard to prove whether it is given to horses en route. Re-stocking takes time and money. A tachograph can register a “stop” every eight hours, but a driver could just have refuelled the vehicle and had coffee
Rule: Horses must be given 24hr rest for every 24hr travel
Abuse: Only a fraction of the 100,000 horses crossing the EU each year stop at the two staging posts. One official said there is a “big problem” with Romanian transporters: “They just go, go, go,” he said. “Occasionally police stop and fine them, but they carry on”
How you can help
World Horse Welfare want the EC regulations tightened and enforced, and an ultimate end to the live trade.
And we can help. Director of campaigns Jo White and colleagues drafted changes for the regulations introduced in 2007, and know more can be done. The charity is not trying to stop the slaughter of horses for meat, but believes that until slaughter at source is made mandatory, these animals will continue to suffer.
The EC is starting to review the regulations now — looking at stocking density, journey times and enforcement, among other issues.
The charity needs people to support its campaign, Make a Noise, write to their MP and MEP and sign the petition (see pages 59 and 83) calling for changes.
“We want people to give us a call and to get involved,” said Jo.
For more details, call 01953 498682 or see www.makeanoise.co.uk