A quick report on fly grazing and welfare

Even if you live in the inner City, you've probably seen fly grazing, where herds of horses suddenly appear on land that they don't have permission to be on. Near where I used to live, on the Wellingborough embankment, the local council spent thousands some years ago on putting up smart post and rail fencing around its land. Little of it now survives, because it has been removed by people breaking down the fences to graze their ponies. These ponies are regularly, repetitively, complained about on welfare grounds to the local authority, and to World Horse Welfare, the RSPCA... you name it. I've complained myself. My son and I corralled a skewbald who'd got loose one evening until the police turned up to deal with it.

Fly grazing near Irchester
Last year, the Embankment horses were finally removed because of welfare concerns. I don't know what happened to those horses, and I've since moved from the area, but when I drove back that way a couple of months ago, guess what? There are horses back in those fields again. The fields regularly flood, because they're next to the river, and the horses are often seen, huddling on the verge next to the road, where they're fed bread, and goodness' knows what else, by the many people worried about them.

There have been sad cases in our local press of horses found drowned, from herds fly grazing in the flood plains round the River Nene.

Fly grazing isn't restricted just to Wellingborough. Today (26 November, 2013) there was a debate in Westminster Hall on fly grazing, and the need to introduce more effective legislation.

The Welsh Assembly has introduced, and is fast tracking, legislation to make it easier to tackle the problem - the Control of Horses (Wales) Bill. At the moment, any action which can be taken needs ownership to be proved. During the debate, which the BBC streamed live, we heard how owners evade this. Even if ownership is proved, and the culprits are banned from keeping horses, they transfer ownership elsewhere within the family. Some owners have been banned, but blithely ignore this. Julian Sturdy, Conservative MP for York Outer described a case where a farmer in Osbaldwick had, in a 48 hour period, removed horses fly grazing in one of his fields and mended the fences nine times. During this period, he had been abused and intimidated by the horses' owner, who was banned from keeping horses.

Huw Irranca Davies, Labour MP for Ogmore, reported that the RSPCA have concerns that the family of Tom (Tony) Price, the horse dealer who owned over 2,000 horses, and who was convicted of 57 offences of causing animal suffering, have already been moving horses into England in anticipation of the tightening of Welsh legislation.

If owners are prepared to flout the law, with little danger of prosecution, or to evade it, what is the point, as the Government proposes to do, on relying on a set of laws which they admit rely on ownership of horses being proved before action can be taken?

George Eustice, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, listed the existing pieces of legislation that could be used, and the imminent Acts that could help, but admitted that using all of these depended on ownership being proved. As had already been mentioned in the debate, it is this very fact that allows rogue owners to dance around the law, because they simply deny ownership, or transfer it elsewhere.

The Government spokesman was also was concerned that the proposed Welsh legislation would increase the financial and time burdens on local councils as they dealt with fly grazing and welfare issues.

Surely, if fly grazing is dealt with in a manner which deters it happening again, it is more cost effective than the current persistent, and mostly unsuccessful use of resources which provide only temporary relief for the problem. Alun Cairns, MP for the Vale of Glamorgan had statistics: in his area, one of those which suffer most from fly grazing, there were 1,500 horse-related incidents in the last 13 months alone, which had cost £1.2 million to deal with. In one example, a comprehensive school had to spend £61,000 on a fence to stop horses from being grazed on the school playing fields. If the fences are broken down by those who fly graze, the school will have to find the money again.

The Government's stance seems short-sighted at best, and likely to prolong equine suffering at worst.

Left on the Verge, a report produced by equine welfare charities, including World Horse Welfare, Redwings and the RSPCA, has a wide ranging set of proposals aimed at tackling fly grazing, and welfare concerns caused by indiscriminate breeding:

  • Criminal legislation - make fly grazing a crime
  • Have a better link between horses and their owners so ownership can be proved
  • Education - stop indiscriminate breeding
  • Help landowners resolve fly grazing quickly, amending legislation to allow authorities to seize and assume ownership rather than using the current lengthy abandonment process
  • Work with the traveller community (who are the main proponents, though  not the only ones, of fly grazing) to share best practice
  • Improve enforcement
  • Give more assistance to local authorities
  • Educate the public not to breed indiscriminately
  • Produce guidance notes for landowners to explain what to do if they experience fly grazing

In what I heard during the debate, I did not hear any evidence that the Government is prepared to take any new course of action, but proposes to rely on existing and proposed anti social behaviour legislation. We can only hope it is as successful as the Government hopes.

Read the full transcript of the debate


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