Julian Sturdy: Now we can rein in rogue horse owners

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HAVING grown up and worked on a Yorkshire farm, I have always had a deep affinity for our countryside. Unfortunately, the sight of malnourished and forlorn horses that have been dumped in farmers’ fields or cruelly tethered to the roadside has become all too common across the county and it is clear that the existing laws to prevent fly-grazing are no longer fit for purpose.

Over the past three years, I have been contacted by a wide range of constituents who have suffered damage to their crops or have been intimidated by the owners of the horses after attempting to provide the necessary food and water.

There were also a number of serious traffic accidents around the outskirts of York that were caused by abandoned horses wandering into the road.

In light of such serious concerns, I have been working hard to secure a change in the law so that abandoned horses are afforded better protection from neglect and abuse.

Last week, my proposals finally made it onto the statute books in the form of the Control of Horses Act 2015 and I am delighted that local authorities and farmers now have the necessary powers to tackle this horrendous form of animal cruelty head on.

As the law currently stands, it takes at least two weeks for abandoned horses to be rescued by the RSPCA or local authorities. In that time the horses’ owners often move the animals into a neighbouring field or onto another country road, and in doing so are able to avoid prosecution under the Animals Act 1971.

This has the effect of requiring the notice period to start all over again and an endless game of cat-and-mouse ensues, with the horses’ health and wellbeing deteriorating all the while.

Even in the rare instances when local authorities are successful in seizing abandoned horses, they are currently only able to dispose of the animals by selling them at a public auction, often for as little as £15 a horse. This has the effect of deterring landowners from rescuing the horses as they will never recoup the costs of acting in the animals’ best interests.

That the law prioritises commercial expediency over what is in everyone’s best interests is demoralising in the extreme.

To add insult to injury, the people buying the horses back at auction are often the very same as those who abandoned them to a lifetime of 
neglect in the first place, and so the 
cycle of abuse has continued to spiral out of control.

From the end of May, when the new law takes effect, abandoned horses can be rescued by councils or farmers in as little as four days, making it much more difficult for unscrupulous owners to avoid enforcement action.

The law has also been changed to enable farmers to recoup the losses they have suffered to their crops, or the cost of moving the horse, directly from the owner.

It will also be possible for horses to be gifted to animal welfare sanctuaries if their owners fail to come forward. It should also be pointed out that horses will also now enjoy the full protection of the law, regardless of whether they have been abandoned on common land or privately owned farmland. What 
matters is the animal’s wellbeing, not 
the category of land to which it happens to be chained.

Having been an MP for five years, it is a sad fact that securing meaningful change is often incredibly difficult. It was only through an unlikely alliance of animal charities such as World Horse Welfare and the RSPCA, and countryside groups like the National Farmers’ Union and Countryside Alliance that we were able to present our proposals as a united force. This spirit of teamwork also extended into the cross-party support for a change in the law. The help I received was a fantastic example of how even in the run-up to the most important general election for a decade, MPs from different parties were able to work together in the interests of the common good. I am particularly grateful to the Labour Peer Baroness Mallalieu, who helped to guide the Bill through the Lords, ensuring that the proposals were pushed through in the final days of the Parliament.

Whilst the new law is by no means a silver bullet, animal welfare charities agree that it will go a long way towards breaking the cycle of abuse for abandoned horses. Animal cruelty has absolutely no place in civilised society.

Julian Sturdy is seeking re-election as the York Outer MP. His Control of Horses Act 2015 received Royal ascent before Parliament’s dissolution.