Budget cuts to emergency services pose a welfare threat [H&H VIP]

  • Fire and rescue crews are essential in attending equine-based emergencies, but with budget cuts looming, some large animal rescue teams are under threat.

    Since the start of 2015, horseandhound.co.uk has already reported five cases in which fire and rescue services have been called out to help free a trapped horse or pony.

    Large animal rescue teams are vital for saving horses — whether it be extracting them from a fence, pulling them from a river or bog, or helping out in road traffic accidents involving loose horses.

    In April, the North Wales Fire and Rescue team will lose its large animal rescue unit, forced by squeezes to the budget. The news follows warnings that up to 228 firefighters’ jobs in North Wales are at risk due to a lack of finances.

    The chair of North Wales Fire and Rescue Authority, councillor Meirick Davies, said: “It is important to view recent decisions made by the Fire Authority in the context of a potential shortfall in the budget for the next five years in the region of up to £3.3 million — which could threaten our core fire and rescue services.

    “While regrettable, members [at December’s Authority meeting] voted to reduce some non-statutory services provided by the fire and rescue service, namely related to rope and large animal rescues, to avoid any reduction in core services.”

    The team has attended 17 equine rescues since 2012, including helping horses that have become stuck in rivers, quicksand and, most recently, a horse wedged in a gate in Holywell.

    And it might be that other services are forced to follow suit.

    Steven Foye of the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) told H&H: “Unfortunately fire services across the country are having to make cuts in line with a reduction in funding.

    “Service planning is structured on the basis of risk, and each service will make financial judgements in line with those plans.”

    An extra burden for welfare charities

    North Wales Fire and Rescue told H&H that it did not yet have a concrete plan regarding who will carry out the equine rescues that it has undertaken in the past.

    However, at a time when Britain is in a “horse crisis” and the issue of fly-grazing is as pertinent as ever, there are fears that this will further stretch the already-overburdened charities.

    “We will look at each incident on an individual basis and to try to work with other partnerships, as the RSPCA is not currently able solely to take on large animal rescues,” said a spokesman.

    World Horse Welfare also has concerns.

    “I have first-hand experience of how calm and knowledgeable the fire and rescue service in Wales is, having dealt with them in a case of a very distressed horse that needed rescuing from a river,” World Horse Welfare field officer Tony Evans told H&H.

    “It is a situation that requires trained specialists with equipment that is capable of safely lifting an animal out of danger. I fear this decision will make helping horses even more difficult, and they will suffer as a result.”

    However, the CFOA said services that have been forced to make cuts will have support.

    “Those without large animal rescue teams can ask neighbouring authorities for assistance,” a spokesman added.

    horse rescue rescues emergency

    A danger to humans

    Earlier this month Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue (RBFRS) saved a mare stuck in an icy bog.

    Jeremy James from RBFRS told H&H that large animal rescue specialists are essential, and that the team had been called out to three incidents in the past week, one involving a 19hh Shire horse trapped in barbed wire.

    “Horses of that size can cause problems,” he said. “The safety of everyone around is key.

    Owners might be used to their horses on a daily basis, and know their personality, but they don’t know what that animal might be like if trapped or panicked. We are specially trained to deal with this, as well as to protect the owner from harm.”

    In 2014, RBFRS attended 49 animal rescues, seven of which involved horses. A spokesman confirmed the crew ‘s future looked secure.

    “Because the firefighters are already on duty (they also crew a fire engine), there are no additional staffing costs,” she added.

    The British Horse Society (BHS) is concerned that owners might step in to try and rescue horses, putting themselves at risk.

    “Obviously when resources are limited, human safety must always be the priority over animals,” said Lee Hackett of the BHS.

    “However, this will compromise animal welfare, which is a worry. It may also put the public at risk as few people could stand and watch an animal in trouble but, without specialist training, trying to help can be very dangerous — especially when there is a panicking horse flailing around. We hope that nobody is injured — or worse — as a result of these cuts, and this doesn’t signal the start of a trend within our emergency services.”

    The Countryside Alliance is also concerned.

    “It is extremely worrying that this resource will no longer be available after April 2015 and there are serious concerns for animal welfare surrounding their decision,” said Rachel Evans, the CA’s director for Wales.

    “There will be incidences where by the fire and rescue service are realistically the only service that could assist with their equipment and expertise. Their attendance undoubtedly reduces the suffering of animals and can save lives.”

    Ms Evans has written to both the Minister for public services, Leighton Andrews and the deputy Minister for farming and food, Rebecca Evans, and is awaiting their response.

    Jim Green from Hampshire Fire and Rescue warned that culling animal rescue crews would cause problems for police dealing with road accidents, or for officers who are faced with roaming, and sometimes aggressive horses.

    “We had a call-out not long ago from police who were dealing with a stallion who had been left in a car park,” he said. “The animal was causing problems, biting people, and the police didn’t know how to deal with it. In that instance we step in and assist.

    “We would like to see education for all emergency services in handling horses, so that the animal, and the officer, is safe.”

    Hampshire Fire and Rescue also faces funding issues. The animal rescue unit was set up 11 years ago and in 2013 attended 80 horse rescues.

    “We will have to be more efficient as we won’t have the resources we’ve had [in the past].

    “We need to keep our profile up and urge people to support the work of the animal rescue services in times of financial trouble,” he added.

    ➤ Owners can help by providing evidence. Lee Hackett added: “I would urge everyone to report any incidents or near misses involving horses to www.horseaccidents.org.uk as this gives us the hard facts and evidence we need to campaign against cutbacks such as this.”

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 5 February 2015