Culling crisis could soon mean horses for main courses
Anyone for a horse burger? Ireland's huge population of unwanted horses has led to records numbers ending up on dining tables abroad. But the Irish -- a nation of horse lovers -- have yet to take fillet of horse to their hearts.
More than 7,000 horses were slaughtered for human consumption last year compared with a mere 822 in 2006 and the upward trend is set to continue. Virtually all the meat was exported to countries such as France and Germany, where horse meat is a staple household dish.
The Irish taboo against eating horse meat is too strong, according to celebrity chefs. They say it'll never catch on here but one farmer disagrees. Pat Hyland, a Laois farmer and one of the rare purveyors of horse meat in this country, sells grilled, marinated and smoked horse from his stall at farmers' markets around Dublin and other towns. He is convinced there is a market for the deep red meat, which is high in protein and iron, and low in fat. From €5 to €15 a kilo, it's also cheaper than beef.
"There is certainly a market for it in Ireland. It is popular with Italians, with bodybuilders; it is an ideal meat for a specialist butcher," said Mr Hyland, who sources his horse meat in Straffan, Co Kildare.
Horse-loving chefs are squeamish. Clodagh McKenna, chef and broadcaster, loves horses too much to want to eat them: "I'm a big horse rider," she said. "I have a huge affection towards them."
Chef Catherine Fulvio believes that "as a nation of horse lovers" we will never take to it. She said she "made a choice" not to eat horse meat, "having grown up on a farm in Wicklow, and having had horses and ponies".
Demand for horse meat has soared in countries such as France, and Irish horse processors are keen for a slice of the market. French households buy the meat in dedicated boucherie chevaline and eat it fried as steak, roasted and raw in horse steak tartare.
Welfare groups believe killing and eating horses is kinder than abandoning them.
The horse population spiralled during the boom, when even poor-bred animals fetched huge sums. Now that the market has collapsed, nobody wants them.
The massive overpopulation of Irish horses during the boom led to a huge spike in cases of equine cruelty. Complaints to the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ISPCA) have quadrupled. Conor Dowling of the ISPCA said the preferred option for struggling horse owners was to retrain the animal, sell or donate it to a new owner and, failing that, to have it "humanely euthanised" and processed for meat.
The Government is being urged to encourage the slaughter of horses to ease the crisis of unwanted animals.
Farming groups and processors are lobbying for an easing up of EU regulations to allow more unwanted Irish horses to enter the food chain, ensuring a humane death while generating at least some income for cash-strapped owners.
Only very young horses, that were never administered drugs, are allowed to enter the food chain. Animals most at risk of neglect are too old to be slaughtered for human consumption, and their owners are either unable or unwilling to pay slaughtering fees of up to €300.
"Horse slaughter is a contentious issue for horse people because in Ireland we have a tremendous affinity with the horse. Unfortunately, there may not be a more practical solution," said James Murphy, of the Irish Farmers' Association.
He hoped a "cull" would be a last resort. "If we can't find a solution for the older horses that are excluded from the food chain, it may come to that. People are very reluctant to move on horses, even older horses.
"I think there is a growing awareness that we have got to grasp that nettle. The oversupply won't go away, and there is a potential animal-welfare issue."
No one seems to know how many horses there are, because so many are unregistered. The Irish Equine Centre is shortly to publish the first demographic study of unwanted horses.
Anthony Lawlor, Fine Gael TD for Kildare, said Irish breeders had little choice but to destroy the animals that "don't make the grade". Of the 7,000 thoroughbred foals born this year, he said, 3,500 would make it to a race track, which means the remainder will end up being slaughtered.