About half of the 7000 horses considered at risk in Britain are being fly-grazed, the charity World Horse Welfare says.
Fly-grazing is the damaging and illegal practice of placing horses on land without permission, often in inappropriate places such as verges, playing fields or farmland.
Just before Christmas, the number of horses at risk of abandonment or neglect across England and Wales had reduced to 6500 following large-scale rescues from welfare charities. However, World Horse Welfare’s latest review of major cases reveals that number has increased once again to 7000.
Welfare charities have about 2800 places for horses across Britain, but nearly all of these spaces are full.
Complaints about horse welfare have soared over the past five years, the result of the economic downturn combined with too many horses being bred, despite the bottom having fallen out of the market.
At the very lowest end, horses are being sold at auction for as little as £5, which in many cases is leading to unscrupulous dealers taking advantage of the situation, the charity said.
It said the practice of fly-grazing was causing horses to suffer and die. The practice also posed risks to public safety and problems for landowners, including local authorities, as well as the police and even entire communities.
World Horse Welfare’s North West field officer, John Cunningham, who met recently with MP Paul Maynard to explain the predicament, said: “With no one piece of dedicated legislation that allows landowners to remove these horses, the problem is not resolved easily and several different pieces of legislation may apply requiring costly legal advice, and the process can be lengthy.
“One of the reasons why fly-grazing has proliferated is because it is so easy to get away with.
“The benefits to perpetrators far outweigh any risks, especially costs to the perpetrator.
“One dealer recently convicted of animal cruelty is thought to have over 2000 horses being fly grazed across the country, which are frequently moved between sites. All these could become the responsibility of local authorities or animal welfare groups at any time – but the present law makes taking pre-emptive action almost impossible.”
The charity says the inability to trace ownership is the fundamental reason why current laws do not work – fly grazers rarely comply with equine identification legislation so the vast majority of these horses cannot be linked to an owner.
In some circumstances, action can be taken only after a minimum of two weeks of trying to trace the owner. The only option open to local authorities once horses have been confiscated is to put them, microchipped and passported, into auction.
Far too often these horses will simply be bought back by the owner – who gets a horse whose value has increased with a passport and microchip – and the problem will be perpetuated.
Separately, violence and intimidation of landowners, particularly farmers, can accompany fly grazing and there is little redress.
Maynard said: “Clearly, owners need to start taking responsibility for their animals, but without better laws to address fly grazing and an enforceable way to link horse to owner this problem isn’t going to go away anytime soon.
“I would like to encourage those within my constituency to do their bit for these horses at risk by rehoming instead of buying a horse to make vital space for another that so desperately needs it.”
The Welsh Government has proposed new legislation that will allow for the immediate removal of fly-grazed horses, but there is no firm commitment from government in England to act.
World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers said: “This is a commendable and necessary action from Wales that could have negative repercussions for England if it does not follow suit.
“Our concern is that some of the thousands of horses currently fly grazing in Wales could simply be moved over the border into England.
“Recently we met with Defra ministers on this very issue and we were advised that the Localism Act might have a role in addressing the problem and we are currently looking into this to see how it can be used in practice. This needs to be clarified as a matter of urgency.
“Fly grazing was debated in Westminster Hall before Christmas and MPs across all parties, from all over the country, spoke about the problems that fly grazing is causing in their constituencies and it’s clear they want a better way to tackle it.”