A charity which has been monitoring wild pony markets in southwest England has charted developments in the murky live export trade, saying laws designed to protect Britain’s wild ponies are not being enforced.
Devon-based People 4 Ponies has monitored the trade since 2010, when it saw the extent to which buyers intent on selling horses overseas were making their presence felt at markets.
“Although there might be some private buyers buying one or two foals, there were individuals at the sales mass-buying ponies,” charity founder Faye Stacey said.
“They were buying as many ponies as they could fit into their lorry, or they would hire the services of a small lorry and take three or four shipments of ponies away to another location.
“At some markets there have been lorries bigger than anything we’ve seen before,” she said.
At one Bodmin pony market there were two “super” trucks with signwriting indicating their use in international haulage.
“They carried approximately 40 ponies per lorry. At the markets dealers fill their lorries to capacity, or more.
“It is now no secret – ponies were being transported abroad to Ireland and Europe.”
Stacey said all ponies, whether registered “pure-breds” or unregistered animals, such as Dartmoor Hill ponies with no pedigree, were supposed to be legally protected under the minimum value legislation to prevent them from being exported from Britain to Ireland or Europe for slaughter.
“For any pony under 14.2 hands high to be transported to Ireland or Europe they must have documentation which includes proof of their value of £300 for a pony between 12 hand and 14.2 hands, £220 for a pony up to 12 hands, and £145 for Shetlands up to 10.2 hand,” she said.
“An export licence is required, and a fitness to travel or health certificate signed by a vet has to be included.
“If unregistered ponies are being travelled to Europe then a journey log is also required, which includes details of the transit, stopping areas so that legal journey times are not exceeded, and a vet is supposed to check the animals on departure and on arrival — but any pony being travelled has to meet the minimum value requirements.”
Stacey said transportation abroad has been openly admitted. “We have seen for ourselves dealers at markets openly admitting that they are heading straight into Spain with their lorry load of purchased ponies – bought at an average cost of £10 a head plus market fees and passporting – because there are no checks.
“We have also had reported to us lorries of known dealers carrying lots of small ‘Dartmoor-like’ ponies to the Welsh ports just after the wild pony markets in southwest England.
Stacey cited several examples of British ponies having been found by charities in poor condition in mainland Europe after arduous truck journeys. In one case, an Italian dealer is understood to have bought them for coat and skin production.
She said the Sathya Sai Sanctuary Trust in Ireland had reported that, until three years ago, wild ponies were coming over literally by the truck load, usually through Northern Ireland.
Work done by charities suggested some of the trucks transporting ponies had fake registrations.
At just one of the markets that the Irish charity regularly attended there would be upwards of 100 mixed wild ponies at any one sale. They were often tired and poor and many suffered with strangles.
The numbers have since diminished to almost nothing as the Irish Department of Agriculture will not allow animals to be sold at markets and fairs without being microchipped and passported.
For years the checks were not properly in place. Dealers, it is alleged, would carry boxes full of passports—forged or just acquired from other animals that were moved on or had died.
Stacey said a Dartmoor Hill pony is usually sold for an average of £10 at the Dartmoor markets in the current poor market conditions.
The minimum value legislation requires value to be proved by a receipt of sale, insurance certificate, an invitation to compete or a certificate of valuation.
“Whilst our evidence suggests some cases where the rules and regulations have not been adhered to or enforced, in other cases it exposes a weakness exploited in the minimum value legislation.
“If you wanted to legally take a Hill Pony to Europe out of a southern UK port you would need an export licence, minimum value certificate, a health certificate signed by a vet, a journey log, and of course an equine passport.
“If you wanted to legally take a wild pony to Ireland – out of a Welsh port, for instance – you would have to apply for an export licence with associated proof of minimum value and provide a fitness to travel document signed by a vet, and you’d need a equine passport.
“But there is also a loophole in the minimum value legislation which has been exploited as a way to export wild ponies out of the UK. By travelling wild ponies straight out of a northern port to Northern Ireland, you can legally export the low-value ponies (which would have been denied export licenses from a Welsh port) to Southern Ireland with no minimum value paperwork, export licenses or health paperwork at all.
“Even though Northern Ireland is part of the UK it does not have minimum value legislation. Of course, transport regulations and equine identification rules do still apply. From here the ponies could even be transported on to France – as Northern and Southern Ireland allow free movement under the Tripartite Agreement.
“The interesting thing is that when we have spoken to the authorities in the UK, Northern Ireland and southern Ireland and pointed out that the Tripartite Agreement doesn’t apply to ponies going for slaughter … the response from all three individual countries has been that no horses have been exported for slaughter because none of the health certificates have been applied for.”
Stacey said the Tripartite Agreement was originally set up to allow the free movement of racehorses and competition horses.
“It seems likely that many wild ponies – hundreds, if not thousands over the years – have been let down by the minimum value legislation, either from lack of enforcement or from a huge loophole which has been exploited by dealers.
“It seems some have been travelled illegally and the evidence suggests failures in regard to their health and welfare.”
Stacey said it was time the agriculture agency, Defra, admitted not only that this has been happening, but also that there were weaknesses in the law.
“Is part of the problem that the ports haven’t been permanently staffed? The markets were not always attended by local authority staff.
“At Tavistock market in 2012, we saw a local enforcement officer attempt to get a driver to offload ponies from his overloaded truck but he swore at the officer and drove off – he would not listen to her. The officer said that she suspected that the lorry would be on a ferry that evening but there was nothing she could do.”
Stacey noted that it was unlawful for the master of any vessel or the pilot of any aircraft to allow the shipment of any horse or pony unless the appropriate documents were delivered to him or to his representative at the time of shipment.
Stacey said the horse meat scandal broke early in 2013 , when a range of processed beef products across Europe were found to be contaminated with horse meat.
“Autumn 2013 was the first time that none of these dealers were present at any of the South-West [England] wild pony markets.” That, she said, was why sales were so low.
“The port authorities in Northern Ireland say that they haven’t seen any lorries travelling wild ponies from the UK since the horse meat scandal was exposed.
“We haven’t seen any dealers buying at markets and the ponies are no longer turning up in Southern Ireland either … so, for the moment, the trade has stopped.
“The question is: How closely were our wild ponies tied into the horse-meat scandal story?”
However, World Horse Welfare recently revealed the results of an investigation indicating that large numbers of horses were being exported from Britain, including many apparently bound for slaughterhouses, with no health or legal paperwork.
The charity monitored the port at Dover over a 48-hour period. No checks were made by the authorities and trucks were followed going to markets in Holland, Belgium and France that are used by meat buyers.
“According to Defra’s records, no horses or ponies were exported for slaughter through Dover last year,” Stacey said.
A spokesman for Defra’s Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency recently told Britain’s Sunday Telegraph that the country had to respect laws governing the movement of animals across Europe and “unless there are good grounds, it prohibits routine checks at ports which would undermine the principles of free movement”.
Stacey observed: “Unless all these laws and regulations are enforced and the loopholes are closed, they mean nothing, and it’s the ponies that suffer as a consequence.
“You can’t help but wonder why we are allowing live exports for slaughter at all. Let’s hope we can get some action from Defra to ensure we have seen an end to the unscrupulous live exports of wild ponies from Britain.
“Could the minimum value legislation be extended to close the loophole through Northern Ireland? This would make sure that legislation truly does protect ponies from being exploited in the way they have been.”