Key figures within the equine veterinary industry are calling for a review of the Tripartite Agreement — which allows horses to travel between the UK, France and Ireland without the need for a health certificate.
They say that potential abuse of the legislation could allow serious equine diseases into the UK.
Keith Meldrum, World Horse Welfare consultant and former chief veterinary officer of MAFF, explained: “Because Europe is border-free the movement of any horse is uncontrolled.
So who knows if a horse coming into England legally from France did not start out in Romania, where Equine Infectious Anaemia (EIA or swamp fever) is endemic?”
The Tripartite Agreement was set up by the chief veterinary officers in Ireland, France and the UK in the 1970s to allow thoroughbreds to travel between the three countries without a formal vet inspection or Intra-Trade Animal Health Certificate (ITAHC).
While Mr Meldrum admits it used to work well, he believes that since 2005 — when the agreement was expanded to allow free movement of all horses except those destined for slaughter — the risk to the UK’s equine population has seriously increased.
He said the spread of disease such as EIA, Bluetongue and the possibility of African Horse Sickness (AHS) is exacerbated by global warming and the “notional” borders between EU countries. Although equidae need an ITAHC to cross from, say Italy to France, not all vehicles are checked.
“A passport used to contain the full history of an animal’s health,” he said. “Now, passports are basic ID documents and any horse can come from France with no certification of health.”
The British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) is also calling for the agreement to be limited to horses registered with a studbook or international competition organisation.
“Although we have no evidence that the legislation is being abused,” he said, “we are concerned that non-registered horses could be moved unnecessarily for slaughter or spread infectious diseases due to the lack of surveillance and border controls.”
But in a risk assessment of the threat of AHS to the UK, published by Defra in November, the Tripartite Agreement was not classed as a risk.
Brigadier Paul Jepson is the chief executive of the Horse Trust and chairman of a government/horse industry AHS working party tasked with ensuring the UK is as prepared as possible to control an outbreak of AHS. He, too, believes the legislation needs tightening.
“This risk assessment accounts for known facts, not speculation as to what could happen,” he explained. “And since there is no evidence that the Agreement has broken down it cannot be classed as a risk.”
He warned: “I believe there are inherent risks in the Tripartite Agreement — it could well be the fatal flaw.”
A spokesman from Defra said there are currently no plans to review the legislation, but added: “We will continue to listen to and consider any concerns the industry may have.”
Brig Jepson identified another weak point as zebras, which carry AHS.
“Air France flies horses all over the world and if they stop off legitimately in Africa, there is no cover if the plane breaks down and horses have to be unloaded,” he explained.
“There is no sensible quarantine arrangement and this is where you could get the breakdown.
“Once that horse has landed in France, it can travel to Britain and Ireland under the Tripartite Agreement.”