On Wednesday, all horse owners in England should, by law, have applied for a passport for their animals.
Yet the deadline passes with no practical implications: passports do not have to be held until 28 February 2005 (news, 27 May), and all passport-issuing authorities (PIOs) Horse & Hound contacted are continuing to accept applications.
Latest figures still show a very low uptake: last month, DEFRA reported 179,000 passports had been issued and 37,000 were being processed – out of an estimated 750,000 horses in the country.
“People are meant to have applied, but the priority is that everybody just has to get one,” says a DEFRA spokesman. “We’re not disappointed in the take up. We accept that it takes a while for people to get used to the idea. Restrictions [and enforcement] apply from February.”
Horse owners are still confused about them. H&H continues to receive a steady flow of telephone enquiries and indignant letters on the subject, particularly about choice of PIO, identification and deadlines. Readers report that the PIOs, DEFRA helpline or members of the DEFRA passport team is still issuing mystifying or conflicting advice.
Most of the 70-plus PIOs have been besieged with enquiries during June and processing backlogs are, in some cases, almost six months.
“I’m sure there will be loads of latecomers and a hangover for months after the deadline,” says a spokesman for Weatherbys, one PIO.
Despite the confusion, DEFRA appears to be leaving publicity about passports entirely to the industry. So in an effort to remove the “hassle factor” for owners, the PIOs – especially the more commercially-minded ones – have trained people up to roam the country armed with forms and silhouette-drawing expertise.
Weatherbys launched its “Helping hands” service in May, and has trained 20 people to complete silhouettes. The service is included in the cost of a passport – £17.50 – if 10 or more are done at one go.
“We’ve had about 500 enquiries, each averaging 10 horses,” says a spokesman. “This legislation has been a bit of a moveable feast, what with dates and details changing, but if someone comes to your stables and holds your hand, it makes it easier.”
The Pleasure Horse Society (PHS) has trained 100 representatives to fill in silhouettes and suggests they charge £10 a time – on top of the £17.50 clients pay to join the society, which includes a passport.
A PHS spokesman says: “The reps have been busy, especially the more entrepreneurial ones, who have used the posters and leaflets we’ve given them to distribute.”
Even vet practices – none of which are themselves PIOs – have put together special passport packages.
The Liphook Equine Hospital, which is “less than enthusiastic” about the scheme, has nevertheless introduced a “Passport’n’chips” deal where owners can have their horse microchipped and passported for £35.
The practice’s last newsletter told customers: “We have come up with something positive to help you with this unnecessary legislation.”