Angela's speech to the BEVA conference
This summer, I spent a couple of very pleasant days in the New Forest. The highlight of the break was a 29 mile circular cycle ride, to and from Brockenhurst, which at one point involved cycling at very close quarters to the ponies, some of whom had staked a claim to space on the roads.
What an experience. But what also came to mind, as I admired these beautiful creatures, was a sense of just how distant most of us are from an animal whose history is inseparable from ours.
World Horse Welfare encapsulated this irony perfectly with the title theme of its 2016 Conference, the Invisible Horse.
Horses and ponies are still central to our existence. In the developing world, their role as working animals is critical to the economy. I pay tribute to those charities which work to improve the welfare of these animals.
Here in the UK, equines play a crucial role in our culture. My contention, though, is that most of us take that role for granted. The horse, its welfare, its well-being, is all too easily overlooked.
The key question therefore, for me, is this:
How on earth is it that a species which offers so many benefits here in the UK should continue to suffer poor welfare standards?
The statistics are worrying.
In 2017, the RSPCA rescued over a thousand abandoned horses. Its figures also indicate that the number of equines at risk of suffering animal welfare problems has almost doubled in England over the last year, after a period of relative stability. The figure in January of this year stood just shy of 6,000, with the Midlands, East Anglia and the South of England all registering big increases in numbers.
We need to understand more clearly what is going on here.
World Horse Welfare, a superb charity from whom we will hear more later, engages Field Officers in something close to 2,000 visits a year to investigate reported welfare concerns.
In addition, the value of equines has been falling for some time. Horses have been found for sale for as little as £5. Given that the cost of care can exceed £100 a week, this is clearly a worrying trend.
And then there’s the related problem, fly grazing. I am informed that the Control of Flygrazing Act is working, but the suspicion is that there may be more fly grazed horses out there. The cost to local authorities is significant – Bradford City Council, for example, spent £215k over the three years 2011-2014 removing 146 horses, of which only three were reclaimed.
But the welfare costs are even greater and, although I care about the funding situation for local councils, I worry more about the poor welfare standards suffered by horses all the way across the country.
Later on in the speech, I will move on to talk about the politics of all of this, in the context of the questions these statistics throw up about the legislative protections offered to equines and the adequacy of our enforcement capacity.
First of all, however, I want to make a few remarks about the other big topic of the moment as far as equine welfare is concerned.
Brexit. The issue that is absorbing all our time, our energy and, incidentally, our precious resources.
The UK’s departure from the European Union, if it happens, will throw up a number of challenges for those of us concerned about equine welfare.
You will all be well aware of the potential problems, if the Brexit we get settles towards the ‘hard’ end of the options available to us.
By this I mean, of course, a ‘no deal’ Brexit, or a Free Trade Deal Brexit, both which would require the resurrection of borders between the UK and European Union states.
Much has been said already about what borders will mean for UK citizens and businesses, in relation to tariffs on good, increased prices and border checks.
Very little, though, has been made of the potential impact on our livestock. Concerns have been expressed about what will happen to fresh foodstuffs, such as horticultural products and fish, if we start to experience delays at our borders.
But what about our animals? And specifically, what about our horses and ponies?
Let me say first of all that a ‘no deal’ scenario would be particularly disastrous for animals – including equines.
Across all 25 of the Government’s no deal ‘technical notices’ trade in live animals was given only a courtesy mention, when the Government pledged to “intensify [its] engagement and cooperation with the EU to enable the continued exportation of live animals and animal products.”
That to me sounds like an admission of no preparation. Astonishing, really, given the risks associated with a no deal scenario.
Border posts on either side of the line, for example in Dover and Calais, and the introduction of customs and border checks, would run a significant risk of increasing journey times.
How much work has Government done, I wonder, to establish what would be the impact of border checks on our livestock, given the inevitable increases in journey times this would produce?
This is particularly a problem as far as Ireland is concerned, as there is a high volume of equine movement between our two countries. And can we really be comfortable with the knowledge that the resurrection of the Irish border could lead to decisions to transport equine livestock by sea to the European mainland, whereas of course at the moment it is possible to make the journey shorter and easier over the UK mainland?
Yet again, how much work has the Government done to measure the potential impact in this regard, if we see the border go up again in Ireland?
There are issues too in relation to the validity of equine passports. I acknowledge the work done on equine identification by welfare charities, who have worked really hard to get the arrangements for universal passporting and a central equine database up and running.
The regulations for enabling all of this went through Parliament earlier this year.
But how will they be impacted by a hard Brexit? Or indeed, by a Free Trade Deal? Would the latter cover regulations relating to traceability for equines and the standards required for transporting horses across borders? And what happens if regulations standards diverge over time? What then for our cross-border movements of equines?
There is also a very real risk that a Brexit at the hard end of the spectrum will endanger the complex supply chain arrangements which underpin the availability of veterinary medicines here in the UK.
Last but not least, there’s the potential impact of Brexit on our essential veterinary capacity.
Currently, 95% of vets in the UK graduate overseas. The vast majority of these come from EU member states.
And only a little over half of vets in the UK are of British nationality.
It is imperative therefore that we continue to mutually recognise professional qualifications across the UK and the EU to ensure that European vets can continue to practise in the UK.
We should, of course, seek to promote the profession at home, so as to produce more home-grown vets.
I think that is an admirable objective to pursue. But training vets takes time – up to eight years – and the demand for vets would be immediate in post-Brexit Britain.
In fact, the demand for vets would increase if we find ourselves in a no deal situation, because the need for veterinary certification of animals crossing the UK/EU border could increase by 325%.
And without vets on hand to deliver the certification, transporting equines for any purpose across the UK/EU border could become an impossible task.
To mitigate the risks, we need the veterinary occupation to go on the Shortage Occupation List and we need to increase funding for UK veterinary colleges.
The Government’s response has been poor, to say the least, and its complacency was highlighted when earlier this year I asked the Immigration Minister about the issue at one of our EFRA Select Committee meetings.
We were informed confidently that the profession was already on the Shortage Occupation List.
A letter correcting the record and apologizing for the error was later received by the Committee, but it hardly inspires confidence in the capacity of the Home Office to secure ongoing access to the skills we need.
Indeed, we found out only two days ago that the Government actively prevented DEFRA officials from engaging with the profession earlier this year. And now the Department has determined it necessary to launch an emergency recruitment campaign and to plug gaps by using non-veterinarians to check certain records and processes. I wonder how everyone in this room feels about that, given just how many representations have been made over the past two years about the urgency of this issue
Now, before I move on to address the politics of Brexit and the state of things at Westminster, let me just make a few, short comments about some of the potential opportunities that departure from the European Union is seen to offer.
I know, for instance, there are hopes Brexit could provide an opportunity to create a new inspection regime which would make use of checks at the border as a means of driving up standards as far as welfare standards and the traceability of equines is concerned, as well as improved biosecurity.
The challenge here, though, is the risk I already mentioned earlier – a divergence of standards between a post-Brexit UK and the rest of the EU.
It is also mooted that we could ban the import and export of live animals for slaughter, an aspiration I totally sympathise with.
It is not straightforward, however, as was acknowledged by Michael Gove only two days ago on the Today programme. He now talks about restricting live exports, rather than banning them.
This is not surprising, given that in reality the issue is rather complex. The disappearance of a large number of slaughterhouses here in the UK, for instance, means that livestock is generally travelling greater distances without crossing any border. In some cases, the distance travelled to slaughter here at home will be greater than that endured by animals crossing borders.
And again we are back with the Irish issue. There are no equine slaughterhouses in Northern Ireland. How do we avoid creating a situation in which it is impossible for horses to be transported across the border with the south, in this context?
The issue is a complex one, demanding a considered approach. One of the biggest fears I have, in fact, is that the Brexit process will produce a desperate bid for legislative changes that provide a useful, positive veneer to what is rapidly materialising as a very negative set of outcomes. Legislative changes, I might add, that would run a significant risk of being badly thought through and potentially damaging for equine welfare.
That then is my take on the issues and challenges we face as far as equine welfare is concerned.