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Recession has led to spike in number of unwanted horses

New study claims a direct link between the collapse of the Celtic Tiger and the hike in the number of abandoned horses in Ireland

Ireland's equine welfare crisis has garnered headlines around the world in recent years, highlighting the plight of misfortunate horses abandoned and uncared for by their owners.

For a country that prides itself on being the 'land of the horse' and a major global player in the production of elite thoroughbreds and sport horses, welfare problems have been a serious blot on our national copybook.

However, it is fair to say that the national welfare crisis has been overblown in some quarters. A lack of verifiable data on the extent of the crisis led to an international game of Chinese whispers, in which facts were scarce and hyperbole rife.

In December 2010, the New York Times ran an article that claimed 'tens of thousands' of horses and ponies had been abandoned amid Ireland's financial nightmare.

Across Europe and beyond, newspapers and radio stations carried reports of horses abandoned that bore little relation to the situation on the ground.

Now, however, a peer-reviewed scientific paper has put together an accurate picture of Ireland's unwanted horses.

'A Demographic Survey of Unwanted Horses in Ireland 2005-2010', compiled by Professor Des Leadon of the Irish Equine Centre, gives verifiable facts about Ireland's unwanted horses.

The report, commissioned by the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders' Association, found that Ireland's economic recession had resulted in a significant increase in the numbers of unwanted horses.

A survey of welfare groups that respond to calls from the public about horses found that the number of calls about unwanted horses increased significantly between 2005 and 2010.


In 2005, three of the 10 charities surveyed reported calls relating to unwanted horses, but, by 2010, all 10 charities were receiving these types of calls. In addition, the number of calls per charity also increased.

While in 2005, the charities received less than 30 phone calls in the year, this had increased dramatically by 2010.

In that year, five of the charities reported 50-100 calls, three charities received 100-150 calls, one charity documented 200-250 calls and another reported more than 250 calls.

An examination of charity calls between 2005 and 2010 showed there was also a marked increase in the number of horses that members of the public were reported to be concerned about.

Looking at the type of horses involved, the information from one charity was outlined in Prof Leadon's report.

Of the 226 horses this charity dealt with in the six-year period, 33pc were under the age of one, while another 24pc were aged one to five years old. Some 17pc were aged five to 10 years old, 19pc were 10-20 years old, 5pc were 15-20 years old and 2pc were more than 20 years old.

The majority (59pc) of the animals documented were females, 27pc were entire males and 14pc geldings. In terms of type, the charity classified 44pc of the horses as sport horses, 38pc as ponies and 21pc as thoroughbred horses.

Prof Leadon's report found that the number of horses found dead or requiring immediate or subsequent euthanasia increased dramatically between 2005 and 2010 (see table 1).

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In 2005, welfare groups found nine horses either dead or requiring euthanasia, but, by 2010, this figure had increased to 279.

This represented a massive 30-fold increase in the six-year period.

"The combined total number of horses found dead or requiring immediate or subsequent euthanasia by welfare groups and local authorities in 2010, the majority of which are, by definition, low-value horses, was 337, and this must be a major national concern," maintained Prof Leadon.

Seizure of abandoned horses by local authorities has also increased. Between 2007 and 2010, the Department of Agriculture paid more than €5.25m to local authorities for costs relating to horse seizures, under the Control of Horses Act of 1996.


Since 2007, total payments have increased by about €400,000 annually, and in 2010 alone, the Department of Agriculture paid more than €2.5m to local authorities for seizure and recovery of abandoned horses and ponies.

Government statistics show that the number of horses seized by local authorities rose from 714 in 2005 to 2,364 in 2010.

It's clear from the Government data that horse seizures were concentrated in urban locations. Of the total 7,312 seizures, more than 60pc (4,538 horses) were carried out in the urban and surrounding areas of Dublin, Limerick and Cork.

Prof Leadon also examined information on horse slaughter, both from commercial horse meat abattoirs and category two plants, or knackeries as they are more commonly known, where the meat does not enter the food chain.

Six category two plants reported 551 horses processed in 2005, rising to 785 in 2010.

The majority of these horses were aged between five and 15 years old and the majority did not have a passport.

As these unpassported horses would not have been suitable for the food chain, the responsible owners paid to have them humanely destroyed and the carcasses rendered.

Where information was available on the gender and type of horses processed, 71pc were female.

Some 66pc were classified as ponies and 33.5pc as thoroughbred.

There are three Department of Agriculture approved abattoirs in the Republic of Ireland, as well as two local authority approved abattoirs.

The total numbers slaughtered at the three DAFF abattoirs rose from 783 in 2005 to 7,296 in 2010.

This upward trend in horse slaughter continued in 2011 and into the current year, Department officials have since confirmed.

Last year, 12,386 were slaughtered at approved abattoirs. The most recent figures available for 2012 show that 2,186 horses were slaughtered in January and February.

Prof Leadon's report pointed out that the number of horses slaughtered in Ireland had increased concurrently with Government debt levels (see graph).

The report found that stud farmers, racing trainers and many other keepers of horses on behalf of others were left with unwanted horses.

Their owners could no longer afford to pay for their keep and did not want any more involvement with them.


"The associated debts and ongoing maintenance costs mean that there is literally no alternative to slaughter in many cases," read the report.

The full text of the report is available online at and is well worth taking time out to look at.

While it does not make for easy bedtime reading, it is valuable for putting verifiable facts and figures to the equine crisis and should stop the Chinese whispers in our industry.

It should also help the policy-makers in Government come up with workable solutions to welfare problems in the future.

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