We welcome the opportunity to come before the committee. As the Chairman stated, I am accompanied by my colleague, Mr. Dermot Murphy, principal officer in the animal health and welfare division.
In our submission, we provided a brief overview on animal welfare as a concept and how it evolved over the years. It was legislatively provided for in the century before last, yet it is only since the 1960s that the science has developed.
It is a complex issue. We emphasise that assessing an animal's welfare is not a binary issue. If one looks at welfare in the extreme, one can have both positive and, at the other end, negative. Invariably, it is somewhere in the continuum in between because so much impacts on animals' welfare.
I make reference to the major strides that have taken place in Ireland in recent years with a view to bringing about improved welfare outcomes. I mention in particular the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013. This brought greater clarity to the range of interconnected issues involved, leading to greater societal awareness and understanding. It also brought greater clarity to certain matters and has supported more effective implementation. Of critical importance in the Animal Health and Welfare Act is the clear enunciation that the owner or person in charge of a kept animal has primary legal responsibility for its welfare.
That said, the Department continues to devote considerable attention and resources to animal welfare issues through its regional veterinary offices and the licensed slaughter premises that it supervises. We have in place an animal helpline, which encourages members of the public to bring to our attention any issues of animal welfare. In the submission, I provided figures for the number of calls that the helpline has taken in the past number of years. There were 321 calls received in 2017, 446 in 2018, and 136 so far this year.
The Department is also supported in animal welfare issues by the charities involved. The Department provided significant funding to these charities over the years, and gave €2.75 million at the end of 2018. That doubled the support to the charities since 2013. A number of the officers within the larger charities have been made authorised officers under the Animal Health and Welfare Act and they are an additional resource to deal with animal welfare issues, particularly in the urban and peri-urban areas. Other significant welfare legislation emanates from the EU relating to the transport of animals and the welfare of animals at killing.
A key focus over the past while has been the development of an animal welfare strategy. A consultation process was launched by the Minister, Deputy Creed, in September last and we are working towards bringing that to fruition in the next number of weeks. Hopefully, by the end of the summer, we will deliver an animal welfare strategy for Ireland. We very much appreciate the involvement of the various stakeholders and we received good responses.
We have a number of advisory committees. The farm animal welfare advisory committee involves all stakeholders and we engage with those on a number of animal welfare issues. They have been singularly successful in delivering an early warning system for on-farm welfare issues that arise at farm level and in developing guidelines for animal owners and keepers. We are also supported by the scientific advisory committee on animal health and welfare, which has given us scientific advice on a number of issues, such as husbandry practices on farm and the killing of animals.
I would like to mention the "One Welfare" concept. It is referred to our submission and I will not dwell on it. Essentially, it is new thinking in the context of the interdependence between human well-being and animal welfare. There is clear science behind that now showing an interconnection between human well-being and animal welfare.
Moving on to equine welfare, broadly speaking, it is similar to the welfare of all other animals. It is subject to the same legislative framework. It is somewhat different in that generally equines live much longer. They are kept for a greater variety of reasons.
They may experience a change in utility during their life, especially those that have been kept for athletic or sporting purposes. They may be treated with animal remedies that are not available for use in other food producing animals. Given their longevity, they are expensive to keep. On an individual basis, they are predisposed to being transported more often than any other individual animal. Their economic value varies significantly depending on what they are being bred and kept for.
The Department pays particular attention to the welfare of horses. We encounter similar presenting signs to those of other animals, such as different degrees of neglect and cruelty being inflicted on the animals in other cases. A confounding factor with the welfare of horses, which is almost unique when dealing with farmed animals, is the issue of stray animals. This is not new. The Control of Horses Act was introduced in 1996 to address that issue. This gave powers to local authorities to control where horses could be kept and powers to seize straying horses. This straying phenomenon has been compounded more recently by a recognised practice of some horses being abandoned. These events are relatively infrequent. However, they are quite stark and, from an animal welfare perspective, it is totally unacceptable that any domesticated animal would be abandoned by its owner.
In both scenarios, straying and abandoned animals are subject to seizure under the Control of Horses Act. While still at an unacceptable level, the overall numbers seized have been falling year on year from a high of approximately 5,000 in 2014 to less than 1,500 last year. The reduction in numbers and greater rehoming possibilities in Europe are assisting the situation, which leads to reduced numbers of animals being euthanised. One of the greatest challenges in dealing with straying and abandoned horses is the difficulty in establishing the ownership or person in charge. This reflects how the identification and traceability system in the industry has evolved. In recent years, we have introduced two new statutory instruments, one relating to identification of equidae and the other to deal with control on places where horses are kept.
The Department has engaged in preventative measures and education, engaging with local authorities, charities involved in equine welfare and other interested parties. We have developed State-sponsored equine centres in a number of urban areas and projects at the edge of provincial towns that involve stabling facilities for those that find it difficult to access land. For example, in Dublin, the Department was pleased to assist in the financing of the Clondalkin Equine Club with South Dublin County Council. The Department is also involved in projects involving the Traveller community in Carrick-on-Shannon and Longford. The committee will have noted the launch last week by the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, of the outcome of a research project on Traveller horse ownership, which was funded by the Department.
The Department has also undertaken an initiative in raising awareness of the critical importance of good horse welfare among road racing sulky participants and the owners and keepers of trotting horses. We have engaged a relevant education provider to deliver an education programme to these people. A key element of the programme is to encourage participants to move off-road and to engage with regulated Irish Harness Racing Association, IHRA, activities. The Department also supports an education programme with a focus on horse welfare in schools in Limerick city. The results to date have been positive with employment opportunities being pursued with the assistance of the Racing Academy and Centre for Education in the Curragh and a number of training yards.
I hope I have given the committee a broad overview of animal welfare and the activities of the Department. There is more information in the document submitted. We are pleased to take any questions that members have.