As any responsible owner will tell you, keeping a horse in good conditions takes time, effort and investment.
Those lacking scruples when it comes to animal welfare and public safety, however, seem prepared to go to any lengths as far as cutting the cost is concerned.
Now, rural and agricultural groups in the North East are calling for a change in the law to tackle so-called ‘fly grazing’ after recent figures showed the region had become a hot spot for the practice.
In 2013, the RSPCA received 1,149 calls about individuals in County Durham leaving their horses on other people’s land without permission, while a further 311 calls came from Northumberland, and 384 from Cumbria.
New statistics also show there were 300 recorded cases of fly-grazing this summer throughout Durham, Northumberland, Tyne & Wear, Cleveland, North and West Yorkshire, and North Humberside.
“We have seen an alarming increase in the number of fly-grazing cases in the North East,” said CLA North regional director Dorothy Fairburn.
“The farmers and landowners left with these abandoned horses are also left with the cost of looking after them, the legal responsibility for any damage or injury caused by them and with having to deal with the lost grazing for their own stock and any damage caused.
“With local authorities already having to deal with horses left on publicly-owned land and animal charities at full stretch, the landowner has no option but to take often costly legal action to have the horses removed safely.
“The only real solution is to make horse abandonment a crime so that those who break the law are dealt with efficiently and appropriately.”
NFU county adviser for Northumberland and North County Durham Richard Potts agreed, saying: “We need to see a clear legal process to deal with this issue.
“England needs updated legislation that allows landowners to take action when the owner cannot be identified.”
Indeed, the CLA, the NFU, The Countryside Alliance and six animal welfare charities have launched a report to highlight the issue.
Stop the scourge: time to address unlawful fly-grazing in England’reveals that over 3,000 horses are currently being fly-grazed, the problem being exacerbated by horse meat scandal, the economic downturn, overbreeding, and the high costs of keeping horses.
Wendy Suddes, the British Horse Society’s regional development officer for the North, however, suggested the chief cause was the low price horses could be purchased at in the first place.
“It’s a problem that’s certainly not reducing, although I’d like to think it’s reached a plateu,” she said. “In the North East, we have fly-grazing in private land as well as individual horses, often tethered, left on local authority managed land.
“With private landowners it’s trickier in some respects, because the people who choose to fly-graze there can be intimidating and have little respect for people or property.
“We have individuals across the North and the UK as a whole who keep a large number of horses and feel they have a God-given right to utilise this land.”
The British Horse Society likewise has “grave concerns” when it comes to public safety, as fly-grazed horses can sometimes escape into public places and onto roads.
As far the horses themselves are concerned, fly-grazing can often mean problems with water supply, unnoticed injuries and more, placing a considerable burden on those taking responsibility for them.
Blue Cross, which works to help sick, injured and homeless pets, for example, can be called upon by the likes of RSPCA in the aftermath in such incidents.
Vicki Alford, a horse manager with the charity, said: “It does have an impact on us because it means that our resources are some much more stretched. Quite often these horses have just been left to fend for themselves and that can mean a whole host of health problems.
“Maybe they’ve not been handled at all or they’ve been badly handled and mistreated. We might also see problems such as skin conditions and very often the horses are undernourished.”
The issue isn’t a new one here and local authorities have been taking proactive moves to tackle it for some time.
Over the last 18 months, for example, Northumberland County Council has led a multi-agency approach in South East of the county, allocating £60,000 in 2013/14 to create one-year horse enforcement project, which has now been extended for a further 12 months.
Coun Ian Swithenbank, policy board member for street care and environment, said: “Our proactive approach has resulted in a significant reduction in the horse grazing problem on council land around Ashington and Newbiggin, with a very large reduction in the number of complaints from the pubic to both the council and the police.”
Ian Hoult, neighbourhood protection manager at Durham County Council, likewise said the authority made every attempt to trace owners through scanning the horse’s microchip, putting up notices and making making door-to-door enquires.
“However, if we are unable to find the owner and there is a risk to the public we have no option but to remove the horse, and the owner is then faced with paying a fee to have the animal returned,” he said.
Under current law, however, private landowners can find themselves powerless to remove horses quickly and effectively, especially since the closure of the UK’s natinal database of horses.
Hence, charities and countryside organisations, want to see new or updated legislation along the lines of the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014, which appears to have led to a reduction in incidents.
Now, at least there is a glimmer of hope, with a parliamentary debate due next month at the Second Reading of MP Julian Sturdy’s Control of Horses Bill.
Roly Owers, chief executive of World Horse Welfare, said: “We believe the upcoming Parliamentary activity on this issue will show that the status quo is not an option.
“The Government should give the time and support necessary to get this Bill onto the statute book before the end of this Parliament.”