Julian Sturdy: Why fly-grazing of horses causes such frustration

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THE problem of fly-grazing might seem somewhat mundane, but try telling that to the farmer whose crops are being destroyed, the motorist whose life is endangered by a horse on the road or the animal welfare charities that work tirelessly every single day to rescue horses from the miserable existence to which so many are condemned.

At the core of the issue is a simple but profound point of principle: that no one should be above the law. Abandoning horses to a life of neglect has no place in civil society, nor should people’s lives be negatively impacted by those who have little regard for the law.

Definitive numbers are impossible to provide, but welfare charities believe that unlawful fly-grazing has increased significantly in recent year with conservative estimates that at least 3,000 to 4,000 horses are being fly-grazed in England alone.

A month ago an accident on the A64 from York to Bridlington involved two horses that were being fly-grazed and a cement lorry. Sadly, but as one would expect, the consequences were not good. One horse died almost immediately, but the second was only injured and subsequently went missing. It had been moved by persons unknown, but was later traced back to a local site where the RSPCA attempted to treat the injured animal. Unfortunately, the mare had to be euthanised soon afterwards, as, although she appeared to be responding to treatment, vets were unable to control her pain and she was found to be bleeding internally. The owner of the horse has yet to come forward.

In November 2013, three Shetland ponies were removed from the same site in my constituency in extremely poor condition. The attending vet gave the ponies body scores of 0.5 and one out of five — a score below one is officially categorised as “emaciated”, and the animal is all too often close to death by that point. Although the RSPCA was advised who the owner was and was able to contact them and conduct interviews, they were unable to prove ownership, so the case could never proceed to court. Thankfully, the ponies were re-homed.

A further case from my postbag involved another horse being hit by passing traffic on the A1079 from York to Hull. It was reported that the owner had discovered the horse in terrible pain in a field where it was being fly-grazed, yet decided to leave the animal to die in a neighbouring field without any veterinary attention. Again, the RSPCA was unable to prove ownership of the horse.

Fly-grazing not only blights the lives of horses subject to it, it also impacts on farmers who grow our food. A 2012 survey by the National Farmers’ Union found that more than 1,000 farmers have direct experience of fly-grazing.

The reasons behind its growing prevalence are complex. My understanding is that since the horsemeat scandal that devastated our confidence in the EU’s food safety process the price of horsemeat has plummeted.

Notwithstanding that collapse, irresponsible dealers have continued to buy, breed and import horses, and the market has become saturated. A horse can now be purchased for as little as £5, although it can cost in excess of £100 a week to look after it properly.

Over-breeding of horses is a significant issue. Irresponsible horse owners are failing to ask themselves “Do I need to breed from my horse? Is there a market for the foals? Can I afford the costs involved in caring for and supporting more horses?” When the answer to those questions is no, the temptation to fly-graze is all too clear, especially when enforcement action is so varied.

The Welsh government has given its local authorities powers to seize fly-grazed horses after seven days and, if necessary, to destroy them. Seven days is still a long time to wait to seize a fly-grazed horse, although the existing legislation in England provides for 14 days.

My Bill proposes three changes. First, the Bill gives local authorities in England the power to detain a horse in any public place in its area where the authority has reasonable belief that the horse is there without lawful authority.

After detaining a horse – and that can include removal – the local authority must inform the police within 24 hours of its right to detain the horse. Once the police have been informed, the local authority may detain the horse for four working days from when it was first detained. The current time frame in Wales is seven days.

After four working days, the owner of the horse will no longer be able to claim it back – crucially breaking the cycle of abuse and neglect. Where a horse is sold any excess money from the sale once the costs of looking after it have been deducted can be claimed back by the owner. However, the horses are often of such low value that there is hardly ever money left over.

This issue angers and frustrates many individuals up and down the country who want to see robust action taken.

Julian Sturdy is the York Outer MP who introduced the Control of Horses Bill to Parliament. This is an edited version.