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Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine debate -
Tuesday, 1 Jun 2021

Regulation of Sale and Supply of Pets and Animal Welfare: Discussion

No apologies have been received. Deputy Paul Donnelly is substituting for Deputy Martin Browne. Before we begin, I remind members that in the context of the current Covid-19 restrictions only the Chairman and staff are present in the committee room. All committee members must join remotely from elsewhere within the parliamentary precincts. The secretariat can issue invitations to join the meeting on MS Teams. Members may not participate from outside the parliamentary precincts. Members should mute their microphones if they are not making a contribution and use the raised hand function to indicate. Please note that messages sent via messaging chat are visible to all participants. Speaking slots will be prioritised for members of the committee.

On the agenda for today is regulation of the sale and supply of pets and animal welfare. Today's meeting will be in two sessions. The first will be from 3.30 p.m. to 4.30 p.m. and will include engagement with representatives from Dogs Trust. The second, from 4.30 p.m. to 5.30 p.m., will include engagement with representatives from Horse Care Ireland.

I welcome, Ms Becky Bristow, executive director, and Mr. Conor Brennan, adviser, from the Dogs Trust. We have received their opening statement and briefing material, copies of which have been circulated to members. We are limited in our time due to Covid-19 safety restrictions. The committee has agreed that opening statements will be taken as read in order that we can use the full session for questions and answers. All opening statements are published on the Oireachtas website and are publicly available.

Before we begin, I will read an important notice on parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they will give to the committee. If, however, they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name, or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Participants in the committee meeting from a location outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that the constitutional protections afforded to those participating from within the parliamentary precincts does not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether, or the extent to which, participation is covered by the absolute privilege of a statutory nature.

I welcome our guests and invite questions from members. Senator Boylan has been pushing for this meeting for a while, so I will give her the first opportunity to ask questions.

I thank the committee for accepting my request for this session, particularly in light of the fact that we are more than a year into the online sale of pets. It is a good time to take stock of the position in this regard. I welcome Mr. Brennan and Ms Bristow. They have done a great deal of work on the online sale and supply of pets and where matters could be improved.

The Dogs Trust's previous research found that 68% of the members of the public questioned were unable to spot an illegal advertisement. Of the 62 advertisements on one online platform, only one was in compliance on a particular day. It appears that welfare groups, organisations like the Dogs Trust and volunteers are doing the work the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine should be doing, which is making sure that existing regulations are enforced. When I raised this issue with the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, he confirmed that not a single infringement case had been taken in respect of any online sale advertisements. That is despite five sample cases, ready for prosecution, were sent to him last December. The advice that comes from the Department is for consumers to do their own due diligence. If online platforms do not have access to the information to verify details, then what hope have members of the public?

I will ask the witnesses about the online verifiability and traceability of dogs in particular. In their opinion, is it possible to have a single national dog breeding establishment database detailing the number of breeding bitches and the location of establishments involved? When I looked for this information from various local authorities, it was patchy. In some cases, I had to request it. In others, it was publicly available. The Department published its information but it does not have a live database so one cannot keep track of who is on it and who is not. Can we have something similar to the register for gas fitters whereby it would be possible to go online to verify who the dog breeder is and the level at which he or she is breeding animals?

What is the witnesses' views on microchipping? There are currently four databases in Ireland. Is it possible to have some sort of system where information from the four databases is, again, in a single location, so online platforms can not only verify that this is the microchip of a dog but also the type of dog, its age and status? Those are my first two questions. Is this stuff possible and are there examples we can learn from?

Ms Becky Bristow

I thank the Chair and the committee for having us here today and I thank the Senator for her questions. To answer them very directly, yes, this technology is possible. It is available and is used by the Government in other ways, for example, in the context of car registration. To verify a car, its source and what exactly it is, all one has to do is type the registration number. Plenty of stakeholders are able to access a database to verify whether details put up on an online platform are true. The online platforms are also able to do the verification up front, which is what we would want.

I will say at the outset that the legislation the Department brought out last year is actually very good. It was very well thought out. If it is enforced and underpinned by traceability, we will be in a very good position. We are not often in a position to do something that will be game-changing for consumers, criminality and animal welfare. That is why we are today, to ask the committee to empower and fund the Department to put in a verification and traceability system. These systems already exist in other parts of the Government. This is not brand-new technology and it is very doable. It is not acceptable to rely on public or private selling platforms to do all the work. The reality is that enforcement has to come from the powers that actually put out the legislation.

To answer the Senator's question very directly, it is absolutely possible to have a single database of breeders and verification of microchipping. We are very lucky in Ireland that we only have four microchipping databases. The UK has a multitude of databases, which makes it much more difficult. All we need to have is a piece of plug-in technology to verify if a microchip is real and whether the details match those of the dog that has been put online for sale.

Mr. Conor Brennan

I will quickly add to what Ms Bristow said. On the Senator's point about registrations that are currently live, local authorities look after the dog breeding establishment, DBE, register. The situation is disparate and uneven when looking for the register. The introduction of these rules for the online sale, supply and advertising of pets means there is now a seller-supplier list, which the Department has set up. If more than six pets are sold in a calendar year, the seller must register. To its credit, that has been quite successful. Approximately 500 people are registered on the latest list. What we getting at with traceability is joining those dots together, basically. These are two different lists, notwithstanding, say, a charity. If it is possible to both verify the microchip number and, as is in the rules, also put down the DBE or seller licence number and verify it against the lists out there in the ether within different Departments, that would go a huge way towards traceability and all the other benefits it would unlock that we can discuss.

I will ask one supplementary question on that. Again, for the record, if we want this to work properly, before the sale goes live this information should be verified by the platform. When the advertisement goes up, the public should know the information has been verified.

That is more a point than a question.

I call Senator O’Donovan.

I thank the Chair for allowing me in. I have missed many meetings for different reasons, such as health, and I feel like King Henry IV. He rarely visited his subjects in his kingdom, and his answer was "seldom seen but much admired".

I have no problem with most of what has been said here. I agree with it. My daughter and various family members are animal lovers and have dogs, etc., but I have just one issue. In the last 12 months, I have been obliged to walk a lot because of my health condition. I average probably six to eight miles per day. I am not sure if it is appropriate to raise it here but I have one simple question. How one can control littering by dogs? In the significant walks that I do, it is absolutely disgusting. I have seen my grandchildren walk into poos. I know that 90% of dog owners are responsible, but there should be some way of highlighting the 10% who disrespect our footpaths. This morning I walked six or seven miles around Dublin. I was appalled by the amount of dog excrement on the streets. I live in Schull, a beautiful place in west Cork. As I said, 90% of people who have dogs are very honourable. They look after their dogs and make sure that if they litter, the excrement is picked up. However, on the 10%, it galls my heart to see a three-year-old toddler walking into this stuff and trying to clean their shoes. It is only a small issue, but it is something that should be highlighted.

I thank the Senator. I call Ms Bristow.

Ms Becky Bristow

The Senator is right. It is about responsible dog ownership. The Senator may have seen local authorities around the country running much stronger campaigns about picking up after dogs. Dogs Trust has had a “scoop the poop” campaign this week about that. However, there has to be an imposition of fines to make any difference. A very forward-thinking local authority in Leitrim is currently running a test run of genetically testing the litter in order to trace back to the dog and, therefore, dog owner who left it behind. Of course, the dog cannot pick it up. There are possibilities in the future. We have local authorities in Ireland which are being imaginative and innovative in finding ways to do this. However, at the present time, it is about trying to get people to be more responsible. It is about the public education campaigns on how it is not only disgusting, but it is a very serious hygiene issue for people and for children. We have all heard the ad campaigns about people who are blind or who are in wheelchairs. Can one imagine how disgusting that must be for them? They do not have the possibility to avoid it. We are heavily involved in campaigning on responsible dog ownership. However, there are other possibilities ahead. They would tie into insuring and fining, and making sure that dogs are microchipped. We could, at the point of microchipping, have a DNA sample to make the dog traceable in future. There are options to consider to join up all of this, so that Ireland becomes a dog-friendly place, and so that this does not cause difficulties for the humans in the community.

I thank Ms Bristow and I call Senator Boyhan.

I thank the Chair. First, I want to welcome Ms Bristow and Mr. Brennan. I thank them and acknowledge the enormous work they do in Dogs Trust. It is an impressive charity. I know a certain amount about it because I know people who are involved in it. More than 1,000 dogs were rehomed in 2020. That is a phenomenal success story in itself. The two areas on which I want to concentrate today are about the funding of Dogs Trust and on the mechanism for funding. I know it gets many voluntary contributions, but does it get State funding or funding from the local authorities? The reason I ask is that I carried out a survey of all 31 local authorities about two years ago. It first identified what money they had received from the Department. It tried to identify where the allocation was. What was very clear was that many authorities had not passed on money they had ringfenced for animal welfare. That raised a number of concerns. We had serious issues in regard to animals in a number of counties, which were documented in the local and provincial press. Again, some local authorities were not proactive. Other authorities are exceptionally proactive. I would like to hear about the funding mechanism and how it secures funding. I am sure it never has enough. The witnesses might talk to us about that and about their relationship with the 31 local authorities. I do not expect them to take me through all 31 local authorities but, generally, the relationships Dogs Trust has with designated people involved in animal welfare, dogs and related issues. That is important because I detect inconsistent and patchy commitments in different local authorities.

Where does Dogs Trust get its funding? What percentage of its funding comes from voluntary sources as opposed to State, agency or Department funding? Could the witnesses address those two issues?

Ms Becky Bristow

I thank the Senator for his questions. Dogs Trust is a little unusual in that all its funding comes from public donations. We do not apply for Government funding for animal welfare work at this point in time. We have a relationship with all local authorities, because we take dogs directly from local authority pounds. The relationships vary. On the whole, they are positive. It comes down to resources in local authorities, where they are applying those resources and what their priority is at this point in time in relation to dogs or dog welfare. There can be tension between dealing with strays and issues in the community with dogs, versus dogs they have in their care, what they need to do with them, and being proactive to prevent the problems in the future. I am not sure if this answers the Senator's question.

On the funding side we are a little unusual. Virtually every other dog rescue and animal welfare place probably accesses considerable State funding, but I do not know of any that are fully State funded. They all rely on fundraising to do many of their activities.

Ms Bristow might give us an idea of the cost to run its operations for the year. If that is sensitive information, I will not push it. I am pleased that all its money is coming from the voluntary sector, but is it its intention to seek State funding? It does good work but maybe it is happy enough. I would like to have an understanding, because we hear of animal welfare groups which are challenged, which say that they have to shut down, and which are under-resourced. I am thrilled to see that Dogs Trust can manage. It says something about the Irish people that they are committed to support animal welfare. I think this is brilliant. I would like to get a sense if it is cash rich? Does it not need any money? Is that what Ms Bristow is telling us?

Ms Becky Bristow

I would not say that at all. The Senator may not be aware of it, but we are part of the wider Dogs Trust group. We are the Irish subsidiary. We certainly would not have been able to do any of what we have been doing for the last 15 years, as we are not raising all the money we need in Ireland. We are being funded by donations from other parts of the Dogs Trust group. There is a big priority on dog welfare in Ireland. This is because ten to 15 years ago, we saw an enormous rate of destruction of dogs in dog pounds. We are part of a much bigger charity. I could not say that we are cash rich in Ireland, but the Irish public is very supportive of us.

The cost of running our operations is public information and is in our annual report. I would struggle to put my finger on the exact figures for everything at this point in time, but I am happy to send that on and share it.

I call Deputy Collins.

I welcome our witnesses. In my own part of Cork South West, many people will appreciate this discussion today on the care and safety of dogs. Dog theft has become such a huge issue.

What is the reason for the delay? Why has the Department taken no dog theft case to date? Is it to do with proof? What is slowing up this process because it is vital that a clear message is sent to those seeking to engage in this nasty crime that they will get a serious rap on the knuckles for it? Could the witnesses give their insights into why no case has been taken?

Ms Becky Bristow

It is very difficult to take a case unless one has all the evidence. This is why the traceability and verifiable checks in advance are needed. Enforcement is not really possible without this. Take the case of a dog that is stolen or is of unknown origin. An advertisement is put on an online platform and the dog is either sold or the advertisement is taken down without any fuss before one could really gather the evidence and search to see whether there is an issue. Trying to track would be an insurmountable job for anybody, which is why it must be automated. It relates to the quantity of what is happening. Yesterday, we looked at one website with 48 pages containing over 400 advertisements for dogs for sale with an average price of €1,500. This is €3 million worth of money on one website on one day. To find one case quickly enough to track it down and force something is very difficult. This is why automating and verifying in advance would bring about traceability and much easier enforcement because all the data would be there tracked and gathered.

I welcome the witnesses. I thank Senator Boylan for making sure this issue was raised in the committee. Sometimes time is very limited and we all have our own priorities. As a farmer, this issue would probably not have been top of my priority list so I compliment Senator Boylan for making sure it was raised here today.

Earlier in the year, I raised in the Seanad the issue of sheep worrying. When I researched it, I was dumbfounded to find that the last report on the implementation of the Control of Dogs Act stated that while there are an estimated 800,000 dogs in the country, only 217,000 of them are chipped. This is unbelievable. That is the thrust of my questions. In any walk of life and in any instance, it is very easy to police the compliant. How do we overcome non-compliance? Reading the briefing note, I was confused by the jumping from Department to Department. They say that too many cooks spoil the broth. The Department of Rural and Community Development is responsible for the Control of Dogs Act in conjunction with local authorities, but the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is responsible for the micro-chipping of dogs. It is frustrating for me to even get my head around the briefing note going from one Department to the other. What would be the ideal solution? How can we bring this under one umbrella? Would that improve things?

When I spoke about sheep worrying, what seemed to come to the fore was an ignorance, for want of a better word, on the part of even responsible pet owners about how their dog would perform off the leash. It was a case of "my dog is a pure pet". They did not realise what their timid, tame and loveable dog might do once it met up with another dog once it was off the leash and took on a pack mentality. Somebody suggested to me that when a person went to license his or her dog, there should be a simple theory test along the lines of the driver theory test. It would be a tick-box exercise that would highlight the responsibilities of responsible, dedicated and, for want of a better word, good owners so that a person would have to take something similar to the driver theory test to get a licence. If nothing else, it would highlight the responsibilities owners are taking on as registered pet owners.

Ms Becky Bristow

I will let Mr. Brennan take the question on the two Departments dealing with this area.

Mr. Conor Brennan

That is a problem we came across a number of times. As regards the Senator's question as to whether there could be an umbrella group, the different pieces of legislation are working in their own way. If we were to strengthen or modernise the DB licence list so that each local authority digitises and updates the list and ensures it is updated on a regular basis and contains sound information, in a similar way, if we make it accessible for the seller and supplier list, which has now been live for a year and a half, we would then empower the person looking to buy a dog online to do his or her own research. Once a consumer knows the micro chip is verified and has a dog breeder, DB, licence number or potentially a seller or supplier number, he or she can easily access where they are on the list and where the dog is coming from. If it is DB licensed, the consumer will have the information that should be available on local authority websites. Instead of what I can imagine might be a convoluted process of bringing the list together, which would be great, the tools are in place and it seems there is a modernisation of these lists so that gives a consumer power and he or she knows where he or she is getting the dog from and that the micro chip has been verified. The second part of that goes back to the idea that where someone is selling online, and it is in the rules that a person needs to list a legitimate micro chip number, that person must verify that before it goes live. The person must put in the details, get a one-time code and put that code in. The code is verified against the person's PetNet and only then can the advertisement go live. That mechanism can verify that the dog is correct and unlock a significant amount of information that is legitimate and verifiable that the consumer can use to make his or her decision. This where we are coming at it from. That would be a game changer for us.

As a dog owner, this issue is very important. I was a member of the committee dealing with dog ownership in Fingal County Council for six years. We had a very serious issue regarding the pound. Would it be better for one Department to have overall control of all issues relating to dogs and pets? A simple "Yes" or "No" will do. Would it make a significant difference? If too many people are involved in it, it just confuses things. Senator Boylan and I spent a bit of time trying to figure out who is responsible for what and at what stage. If we are doing that here, I am sure the ordinary lay person would be totally confused.

I am very interested in how we could ban cash sales. It is regulated to a certain extent but is not really enforced to a great extent so how would that work? My next question concerns the rate at which dogs are destroyed.

Ms Bristow has mentioned that this has improved. Has that improvement been seen across the board or are there certain areas in which it is still an issue?

My last question is on a matter in which I have an interest. How do we define dangerous breeds? One German shepherd might be an absolute pet and a dote while another may be trained to be a guard dog. There is a local guy who lives around the corner from me who trains German shepherds for movies and television. It is incredible how intelligent and well-trained his dogs are. The issue relates to how certain breeds of dogs are perceived. I have a husky and some perceive her as a dangerous dog. She would be more likely to lick a person to death than to bite someone but there are other huskies that have caused problems in our local park. How do we get around that? How do we improve the definition? I always say that it is a matter of bad owners rather than necessarily one of bad dogs.

In addition to the different Departments, we also have all of the local authorities, some of which operate in a better and more effective way than others with regard to dogs. Would it be better for such matters to come under one organisation or Department, separate from the local authorities?

Ms Becky Bristow

There were a number of questions there. I thank the Deputy very much. At the end, I will let Mr. Brennan pick up on the questions regarding the local authorities and a single Department. On cash sales, the big-picture thinking going on in the UK on these matters is quite interesting. Discussions are under way there regarding the possibility of banning cash sales of pets. I am not sure if people would be clear as to why this is such an issue. The cold hard reality is that once cash is involved, criminality is allowed for. This results in a lack of revenue for the Government and allows poor welfare to be hidden. That is our concern.

How would one go about banning it? It is quite an interesting question. If one made a lot of noise about banning cash sales of pets, members of the public might start to ask themselves why they are being asked for cash, so quite the same level of enforcement as is needed for other legislation might not be required. Even just talking about it enough and getting people to stop and think about why legislation and a ban on cash sales is being considered might cause them to ask why that is the case. Then, when they come to pay for a pet, they may say that they do not wish to pay cash. We all know that people sometimes choose to pay cash for various reasons but in this space, people accept it so readily that they do not realise what is wrong with it. As to how such legislation would be brought in, I have to respectfully say that is not my area of expertise but I believe the mere fact of bringing in such legislation and talking about it would make an enormous difference.

The Deputy asked a question about the rate at which dogs were being destroyed. It is really about where they are being destroyed. Fifteen years ago, 26,000 dogs were put to sleep in local authority pounds in one year. In 2019, fewer than 400 were. That is a massive sea change for which we are deeply grateful. A lot of work went into that in terms of what happens to the dogs. They get rehomed and there is also more neutering going on so there are fewer accidental litters. However, Dogs Trust research has uncovered that part of the problem has moved to private vets. People are acquiring dogs from low-welfare breeders. These puppies are not socialised and have health issues and, unfortunately, are having to be put to sleep by vets at quite a young age because of behaviour and difficult veterinary issues. That is a problem.

Although I will own up and say that I do not have specific research on this, we also question what happens to some dogs. We have 90 licensed dog breeding establishments in this country, some of which have 100, 200 or 300 breeding females. What happens to them when they are finished? We do not know. The issue has, therefore, improved as it pertains to the local authorities. They have really got on board with the improvements that can be made. We feel that the problem has moved elsewhere and that it is still a problem that needs to be dealt with.

The Deputy also asked about dangerous breeds. Dogs Trust is very clear in saying that it is about the deed not the breed. I would say that it may be a matter of a dangerous owner rather than one of a dangerous dog. We are not in favour of the restricted breeds list. We feel that one of the things it does is suggest to people that a German shepherd is a problem while a Labrador is not. It is about how owners socialise dogs as puppies, how they treat them, how they interact with the dogs and how they teach people to interact with them. It is about learning about dogs' behaviour and knowing the warning signs so that bites do not happen. A very big part of what we do in Dogs Trust is educating children and adults about dog behaviour. I strongly believe it is not appropriate to categorise particular dog breeds as dangerous. It is very much a question of the individual dog and the circumstances in which it has been bred and trained. Sadly, it is often being badly treated that leads to those behaviours. I will hand over to Mr. Brennan because the Deputy had some questions about the single Department and the local authorities.

Before Ms Bristow hands over to Mr. Brennan - and I will let him in in a minute - I will just go back over some of the questions Deputy Paul Donnelly asked to get a bit more clarity, if I may.

Ms Becky Bristow

Of course.

On the rehoming of dogs, is Dogs Trust directly involved? Does Ms Bristow have figures on rehoming for the last couple of years? Have the numbers being rehomed increased significantly in recent years? To go back to a point made by Senator Boyhan earlier, if Dogs Trust had extra resources, would it be able to get more dogs rehomed? If Dogs Trust is involved in this rehoming, could Ms Bristow tell me whether those dogs are being rehomed in Ireland or if they are being exported to be rehomed? If I caught her correctly - and the sound quality on these Zoom calls is not always perfect - I believe Ms Bristow said that there were 100 breeding establishments in the country. Is that correct?

Ms Becky Bristow

There are close to 100. There are 90.

Does Dogs Trust have a breakdown of these establishments? Are they breeding greyhounds? Are they what we consider to be puppy farms? Is there a breakdown of the different breeds involved? It is my understanding that it takes six breeding bitches to be considered a breeding establishment. I believe that is included in the legislation. Does Dogs Trust have figures as to how many breeding bitches each individual breeding establishment has? Is there a register? With regard to greyhounds, if one has more than six brood bitches, one has to register as a breeding establishment. Is there a register for other breeds as well? I have thrown a good few questions at Ms Bristow. If she has the answers, well and good, but if not, she might supply them to the committee later.

Ms Becky Bristow

Certainly. I thank the Chair for those questions. We are heavily involved in rehoming. We have been rehoming an average of 2,000 dogs a year from Ireland via Dogs Trust for the last decade. In the last year, we rehomed 1,200 in Ireland. Prior to the pandemic, we did have to rehome some via our rehoming centres in the UK. We are not the only charity to do so. It is better to have them travel a little distance and be rehomed than to have them face the alternative.

What could we do with more resources? The reality is that any more resources should be used to tackle things upstream. Rather than getting to the point at which dogs are surrendered and end up in pounds for rehoming, I would encourage the provision of more resources to tackle matters upstream, including low-welfare breeding and the lack of traceability. These are the dogs that end up needing rehoming. I encourage the provision of resources to deal with these matters. I hope that answers the Chair's question on rehoming.

In the figure of 90 dog breeding establishments, DBEs, I quoted, I excluded greyhound breeders. These 90 DBEs are specifically those that breed what we categorise as pet dogs. Each local authority has its own list. Less than half of these are online so I would have to travel to the local authority and request the list to see who was registered and for how many breeding females.

One central online list is something that would be absolutely paramount to get. It is a licence issued by the State so I do not see any reason it should not be publicly available to be searched. They were the questions I noted. Members may let me know if I missed anything.

Those were very comprehensive answers, I thank Ms Bristow. The figure she gave for breeding establishments is fairly strong; I would not have thought it was so high. The fact there is not an active register available is definitely something that should be rectified because it is very hard to keep proper welfare standards in place if we do not know exactly what we are dealing with. I thank Ms Bristow for that information.

I am sorry for keeping Mr. Brennan waiting. Will he give the rest of the answer to Deputy Paul Donnelly's question?

Mr. Conor Brennan

On the first question about one Department, in an ideal world these really crucial Bills would sit under one Department. The key Departments involved are Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Rural and Community Development. That in itself is not the issue though. We would hope that if they were under one Department there would be more joined-up thinking. The fact they are under say, two Departments, mainly, is not in itself the issue. We encourage more joined-up thinking, crucially around something like the dog breeding establishment, DBE, licence register as it relates to say, the online advertising of dogs. There is a connection there; it is in the rules that if a person has a DBE licence he or she must list it but more joined-up thinking is needed about how compliance is really strengthened because at the moment, I do not know if it is lack of education but there is a severe lack of compliance. Therefore, we really urge that there be joined-up thinking. The Department is hoping to review the DBE Act. It had a consultation on the Control of Dogs Acts and we are continually telling it to ensure this fits in with the legislation from other Departments.

I thank Mr. Brennan. I call Deputy Carthy.

Senator Boylan wanted back in there. I cede my time to her and will take any time available at the end.

I want to pick up on the points in Ms Bristow's submission about how dogs, as companion animals, are in a sort of no man's land, in that they are not treated as livestock but there is no VAT on them and this leads to a lack of invoicing from those DBEs on the bigger scale. When I went looking on some of the platforms, I saw one particular seller had €60,000 worth of dogs for sale in one week alone. That gives an idea of the scale we are talking about and the revenue potentially lost there as well. Mr. Brennan has probably addressed some of that but does that traceability help with the Revenue keeping track of this? Of course, we all want people to go for rescue dogs. However, if a person chooses to buy a particular breed of dog from a supplier, what sort of consumer protections are in place if there are no companion animals to find, because they are in this no man's land?

I also want our guests' opinions on something else. Senator Paul Daly was talking about sheep-worrying and so on. One of the Bills I have been working on with the DSPCA relates to linking the microchip to the licence system as a proof of ownership. In the current situation, a person can get a dog licence within a matter of hours online and there is a space for a microchip number but he or she is not obliged to fill it in. Does the trust agree it would be helpful to have that joined-up approach? That way we are not denying the local authority the revenue from the licence fee but we are bringing that joined-up approach to it, whereby the microchip and the licence are the proof of ownership. Those are the two points I wanted to raise.

Ms Becky Bristow

We would absolutely support linking the microchip to the licensing. Anything that joins up the traceability and the ownership can only be a good thing. I will give the committee a sense of the size of the market, and this is only a vague estimate. Last year, 125,000 dogs were microchipped in Ireland, and at an average price of €1,500 that is €187 million. That is €187 million, primarily in cash transactions, which is not traceable. This is a big deal. This is an industry. It is not about someone's friend's dog having the occasional accidental litter. From a consumer protection perspective, a person has no idea who he or she is getting this dog from. If there are any issues with it, be those health issues or that it is not the dog people thought it was - we have numerous cases where it is a different type of breed, older, very sick dogs - a person may be going back to a phone number that may no longer be connected. Therefore the issue of traceability and consumer protection is huge.

The same is true for the lost revenue angle, in the form of lost VAT, income tax and corporation tax. Obviously, we are here to say that for us it comes back to dog welfare but all of this interconnects. When people can hide behind all this lack of traceability and verification, they can breed dogs in utterly deplorable conditions. We got 37 dogs in recently from a puppy farm, which was an illegal one, and we had to get a counsellor in because the staff were so traumatised by what they saw of these breeding females. We accept breeding is a necessity but it must be done in good welfare conditions, which is completely possible. It is possible to make a profit from it given the price of dogs these days. Obviously we say: "Adopt, don't shop" but we completely understand people may want a particular breed or a puppy but at the moment there is no way for the public to know where they are getting the dog from. There is no way for them to do the right thing when they want to do the right thing.

I will return to the point Deputy Paul Donnelly was raising. It is my experience on this committee that when we deal with any issue that crosses multiple Departments, problems and complications arise, which simply would not happen if there was a very clear demarcation of responsibility. We are dealing with a scenario where obviously the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has a very clear role and the Department of Rural and Community Development seems to have a less clear role and then the role of local authorities is mixed so it is almost as if there are three Departments involved. I note from some media reports that the staff of the dog control unit in the Department of Rural and Community Development have raised concerns about where they are. What does Ms Bristow consider to be the best way to approach this issue holistically with respect to what type of structure should be in place? My view is that local authorities have a very important role to play. They are the bodies that are on the ground with staff on a county-by-county basis so should there be a role for them at State-wide level and how should it operate if we were starting with a blank sheet?

Finally, I understand Dogs Trust Ireland is a charity and there are a number of different charities, which I am sure all have their own distinctions in terms of policy priorities and so on. Again, it has been my experience that when a public service, which is essentially what we are talking about here, is outsourced, even to charities, problems arise, errors can happen or gaps will emerge. Is there a way whereby all the charity organisations and other stakeholders can work together such that the work of ensuring dogs, the public and everybody else are kept safe and that these things are happening in a transparent and clear manner, is guided at departmental level?

Ms Becky Bristow

I thank the Deputy. I would love to speak as if we had a blank page but I am going to operate on what we do have. The cold, hard reality is that although there are multiple stakeholders in this, it must start with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

It has to start with taking responsibility and creating the ability to verify those details. Even if we just started with the verification of microchips, that would be a big step forward. Where the Department of Rural and Community Development comes in is in having that one list of licensed DBEs. That would be its key input. A critical issue for both Departments is to also request a tax registration number for the DBE licence, for getting on to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's list. All of this will allow traceability for the Revenue Commissioners, which can only be a good thing from the Government's perspective.

The charities are all aligned on this issue. I have been getting comments all day from the DPSCA, the ISPCA, Blue Cross and MADRA. We are fully in agreement that this is the game-changing measure that is needed and we will all row in behind it. One of the big things the charitable sector can do is educate the public. Some 52,000 people signed a petition asking for this legislation to be enforced. The public want it to happen and we can help support charities in educating the wider public about what responsible dog ownership is and how to acquire a dog responsibly. Verifying the online sale information is the critical action that is needed right now and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has to take responsibility for that. There is literally no other way. For a year, all the various stakeholders have been talking about this, pointing out different issues, and saying it should come under another Department or the different platforms. The reality is that the owners of the legislation have to take the next step. I know they are interested. I ask the committee to empower and fund them and hold them responsible for doing this.

I thank Ms Bristow and Mr. Brennan for engaging with us today on behalf of Dogs Trust. They got their message across loud and clear. I compliment them on the very good work they are doing. They had all the facts and all our questions were answered comprehensively. Senator Boyhan asked about their revenue so the witnesses might come back to the committee on that. We will now suspend for a few minutes to allow the witnesses from Horse Care Ireland to join the call.

Sitting suspended at 3.23 p.m. and resumed at 3.26 p.m.

Apologies have been received from Deputy Fitzmaurice. I welcome Mr. Anthony Collins, Mr. John Joe Fitzpatrick and Mr. Michéal Leahy from Horse Care Ireland. They are all joining us remotely from a witness room in Kildare House. The witnesses' opening statement has already been circulated to members. We are limited in time due to Covid-19 safety restrictions and so the committee has agreed that the opening statement be taken as read, in order that we can use the full session for questions and answers. All opening statements are published on the Oireachtas website and publicly available.

Regarding parliamentary privilege, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name, or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I call Deputy Michael Collins.

I thank the Chair. If not for his co-operation this debate might never have taken place so that is much appreciated. I welcome the witnesses from Horse Care Ireland. I have a few questions for them but appreciate that they might not be able to explain the whole system to us. It looks like a good proposal but I need to get it into my head. The opening statement states:

The online passport is similar to all other farm animal identifications, with one powerful addition of DNA being used to identify and trace all canine and equine animals dead or alive. This system puts a person and a location with every animal.

I ask the witnesses explain how this can happen. I come from an area where a lot of dogs have attacked sheep. The opening statement also notes, "The farming community has seen first, hand the shocking attacks on sheep and the worrying of other farm animals by out of control dogs" and that it was during discussions about these problems that the concept of an online passport was brought up. I ask the witnesses to explain that further. The submission also states that €6 million is being spent annually on unidentified animals and the different issues that have to be dealt with in that regard. The taxpayer has been exposed. Can the witnesses see a solution to that in their plans?

Mr. Anthony Collins

The Deputy asked how we link a person, place and location to every animal. With the online passport, the person will be linked through a PPS number, the location will include the equine number or canine number and dogs will have their microchip and the DNA. Then we will have a situation where every animal has a person and a location to its name.

That will ensure that irresponsible ownership will be reduced, at least.

What was the Deputy's second question?

The farming community has seen, at first hand, the shocking attacks on sheep and the worrying of other farm animals by dogs that are not controlled. Mr. Collins stated that in discussions in respect of these problems, the concept of an online passport emerged. Perhaps Mr. Collins can explain that further and how its introduction might eradicate the attacks on sheep by dogs.

Mr. Anthony Collins

In respect of the online passport, the DNA is key. If a dog leaves its DNA on a carcass, it is traceable to a location and to an owner. That would be a big step forward for us. In the case of worrying, if the sheep are not actually killed, it may prove more difficult. However, it is the best we can do right now. Perhaps the dog industry can come up with something more robust. The DNA is the key. The DNA will enable us to trace the owner and the location of the dog.

My next question concerns the annual spend on animal welfare of €6 million, the issue of unidentified animals and responsible ownership. The taxpayer is being exposed. Does Mr. Collins see a solution here?

Mr. Anthony Collins

The equine and canine industries are driving the €6 million spend. The one single factor in both of those cases is irresponsible ownership and possibly the lack of ownership. Operators are buying and selling in the black economy and animals have become valueless, particularly in the equine industry where horses are stamped out of the food chain and the taxpayer is responsible for the disposal of the carcass. An equine animal that ends up in the knackery has lost its value to the food chain. According to our figures, the cost is almost €2,000 per animal. On top of that, these horses must go to the knackery. That costs another €800. Therefore, every equine animal that is stamped out of the food chain costs the taxpayer almost €3,000. The Irish taxpayer was never alerted to any of this nonsense in respect of the equine industry.

In the canine industry, with the online passport, we will be able to regulate the breeders. We are tackling the black economy in the industry through the stipulation that no animal can move from one ownership on the online passport to another, without that owner having a registered premises. It cannot be transferred on the system. The domestic units that are breeding puppies are contributing hugely to the animal welfare issues in the canine industry. With the online system, we are proposing that every owner has a canine premises. Moreover, in respect of both the canine and equine industries, a yearly census is to be carried out by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. That is the policing tool for both industries. Every movement of a horse or a dog will be traceable. There will be traceability of where the animal is coming from and where it is going, more importantly. With an online passport, the animal cannot leave the owner's premises to go to an unregistered premises.

With the online system, in the case that animals that are found dead, whether they are canine or equine, it does not matter when they are found. If, for example, they are found 15 years later off the cliffs of County Clare, or wherever they are found, the DNA remains, and the last person who owned the dead animal, whether dog or horse, will be subject to sanction because he or she can be identified.

I welcome Mr. Collins to the meeting and thank him for his submission on behalf of Horse Care Ireland. I am interested in the issue of traceability, and in particular, the DNA situation which would apply to both the equine and canine issues that we have discussed. As somebody who hailed from a farm and was fairly involved with sheep, albeit mountain sheep, I am aware of the huge damage that was done and is still being done by a minority of careless dog owners who do not secure their dogs, particularly at night, when these attacks occur. In cases of the worrying of sheep, sometimes the sheep abort, are injured or killed. That issue is perhaps not as prevalent as it was 20 or 30 years ago, but it still happens. It is an important issue.

In respect of the equine industry, Mr. Collins made a point on the cost to society and the taxpayer in the case of dead animals being dumped or horses being sent to the knackery It is much more significant than I had realised. What does Mr. Collins envisage the cost being to a horse breeder or owner? I am not talking about the likes of Shergar. I refer to the people who are hobbyists and have perhaps seven or eight horses, ponies or even donkeys, and who are not making huge money out of it. It is a hobby and they are very caring and loving to their animals. They make sure they are looked after in winter and summer. What sort of cost would be involved for a person in west Cork, for example, who perhaps has six or seven horses and a few donkeys, leaving out the canine side? Will there be extra costs involved in delivering the traceability and microchipping of all animals? Does Mr. Collins envisage there being extra costs for the farmers with this?

Mr. Anthony Collins

The cost involved is absolutely prohibitive for many horse owners. We want the introduction of a cost system that is similar to that of all other farm animals. Bovine, ovine and porcine animals are all fully identifiable and traceable at a cost of less than €5. If I wanted to register a foal tomorrow morning, it would cost me between €120 and €130. The fact that it is cost prohibitive is the single issue that has brought our horse industry to where it is today. Only 48% of our horse population is identified. Currently, 52% of the horse population is not identified. These are the Department's own figures. The main reason for that the horses are not identified is because it is cost prohibitive. That cost is used a fundraising mechanism for the passport agencies. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine must take back control with our proposed online passport system. It is a system that will identify and trace both groups of animals but it must be at a cost of less than €5.

I listened to the previous committee session with representatives from the Dogs Trust. Going forward in the canine industry, I would be cautious of the expense that is involved with the online passport, the DNA and the dog licensing. If all of those expenses are piled onto dog owners, we will be doing exactly what has been done to the horse industry. That is how it will end up.

By way of clarification, and to conclude my contribution, I am keenly interested in Mr. Collins' proposal. Is he saying that the registration cost of €120 per animal is an encumbrance and is in fact driving some of these horse owners, who are probably not making much of a living out of it, underground?

It would cause problems down the road. I am alarmed at the percentage of animals that are not properly registered. Perhaps the witness might comment briefly on that.

Mr. Anthony Collins

The comment I have is in line with much of what I have already said, which is that 52% of the horse population in the State is unidentified. This is unsustainable. There are moves currently in the EU concerning the horse industry with regard to the way horse regulation is applied in Ireland, the cost of the regulation and the way the regulation was introduced in 2009 for identifying horses. All of these have contributed to the black economy in the horse industry.

I thank Mr. Collins. It is a very concerning matter. I appreciate Mr. Collins raising it, and I thank the Chairman for allowing me in.

Mr. Collins said that 52% of the horse population is unidentified. There is legislation that states horses must be microchipped. Is Mr. Collins saying that more than half of the horses in the State are not in compliance with the legislation?

Mr. Anthony Collins

Yes, the 52% figure is from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

Senator Paul Daly, or a member who was on the last committee with me, might recall that we did a good few sessions in the last Dáil on horse welfare. Unfortunately, in my county we have had a number of incidents of horse welfare issues. At that stage, the figure we were given by the Department was 19%, and that more than 80% of horses were registered or microchipped. Mr. Collins is saying now that less than half of the horses are registered and microchipped.

Mr. Anthony Collins

Horse Care Ireland had a meeting with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's head of identification, Mr. Martin Farrell, some 18 months ago. Those are the figures the Department was using: 52% unidentified.

I am sorry for jumping in, but through the Chairman can I ask for clarity? Are we differentiating here between thoroughbreds and crossbreeds?

That is where that figure could be coming in. The Senator is correct.

Mr. Anthony Collins

There is no one who can prove that the thoroughbreds are not in that figure. If one speaks to the people involved in thoroughbred horses, until the horses are microchipped and identified, they are not known as thoroughbred. They are just an equine. They can be in that figure, absolutely.

After today it is a point on which we will need to get clarification from the Department, or an explanation rather than clarification.

Yes, on foot of this the committee should write to the Department to get clarification. If there is any basis for them at all, they are very concerning figures.

I thank our guests for being here today. I would also like some clarification following on from the opening statement. With regard to the costs to the Exchequer and the taxpayer, it would be useful if we were to delve a little into the reference to millions of euro having been lost due to horses being stamped out of the supply chain as a result of poor databases. Will Mr. Collins explain how one relates to the other? I imagine that we are talking about the uncertainty of, for example, a horse that is registered late or that there would be a lack of clarity on whether a horse had been treated with bute for inflammation and it would be stamped out. How exactly and precisely does it result in millions being lost to the taxpayer? Reference was made to €3,000 being lost to the Exchequer for a horse entering the food chain. Will Mr. Collins explain how the Exchequer ends up assuming responsibility there?

There is also a reference to funeral expenses and a taxpayer liability, as a critique of the system. Will Mr. Collins explain how this liability exists, and will he put any potential estimate on where this stands currently?

Going back to the point about the costs of microchipping, why is the cost so high in comparison to the cost for other animals? What would need to be done at a central level to bring it down to the €5 described by Mr. Collins?

Mr. Anthony Collins

The cost of the registration comes mainly from the passport agency and the vet. In the case of a horse, the vet must come out to insert the microchip at a cost of €60 or €70. The passport agency then gets anything from €35 to €60, depending on the pedigree status of the foal. This is where the cost is coming from. That does not happen across the other farming sectors. The difficulty we have is that this level of identification is not necessary. We want a level of identification that delivers for a farm animal. We want the horse to be clarified as a farm animal in the beginning. Later in its life, from a three-year-old upwards, if the horse enters the sport industry it comes under the remit of the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. This is why there is a breakdown in the identification. The horse has two different parts to its life. We are concerned with the first part of the horse's life at farmyard level. This is where the horse is to be identified, and at that cost. Would Deputy Carthy remind me of the first part to his question?

The opening statement said millions of euro had been lost to the taxpayer for horses omitted from the food chain, for late registration alone, as thousands of horses are stamped out of the food chain for this reason and not for any medical treatment. My question looks for clarification as to how the taxpayer ends up losing millions of euro through that process.

Mr. Anthony Collins

That process came into effect on 1 July 2009, when Regulation 504/2008 came into effect. At that time, we were entitled to a run-in period, whereby the passport agency, which is Horse Sport Ireland, moved to remove 52,000 horses out of the food chain for late registration. It was not for any medicinal reason; it was just for late registration. The owners of those horses were never told that as a result of the regulation coming in on 1 July 2009 the horses would be sanctioned out of the food chain. We were told that it would be illegal for the owner, but not that the animal would be sanctioned. It was the owner who was to be sanctioned. Because they were unidentified at the time those horses were supposed to be given a run-in period of six months, which we never got. The Government did not give us this. We did seek it. Because that run-in period was not delivered, over the following 12 months some 52,000 horses were put out of the food chain for no other reason. A horse that is out of the food chain runs up a bill of up to €3,000 for the taxpayer. This happens because if the horse is in the food chain and is fully processed and on the EU market, be it the French market or wherever, that horse is delivering more than €2,050 for the Exchequer and the Irish economy. That is lost if the horse does not make it to the food chain. At the end of its life, before getting to the knackery, the horse may even travel through an animal welfare station. The horse will end up in the knackery to be processed. From the time the horse is delivered, through to the processing in the rendering plant, there is a cost of up to €800 from start to finish, at the very minimum. If you dig into those figures, it will not remain at €3,000. It will go much above that, but we are taking the lowest figure. It is €3,000 for each horse. That can be multiplied by the number of horses that are out of the food chain for no medicinal reason. How can the taxpayer lift that? It is too much weight. It must be questioned and we must get more clarification on it.

I thank our guests for attending. I have three or four questions to ask. I acknowledge the important work that Horse Care Ireland does. As I asked the previous witnesses, Horse Care Ireland's representatives might outline its sources of revenue in terms of keeping the organisation afloat and covering its costs. They might also share with the committee any knowledge they have about culls of horses organised or authorised by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I am thinking in particular of commonages where there are large groups of horses, interbreeding issues and challenges. What knowledge have our guests of those culls? They might share that with the committee because it is important.

Does Horse Care Ireland monitor, look at or engage with local authorities? I am thinking particularly about urban areas where there are many horses, including places in Dublin, Limerick, Galway, Cork and Clare. Many people keep horses in inappropriate conditions at inappropriate sites or are without sites. There is an issue in many parts of the country and I would be interested if our guests could share with us any knowledge or synergies on which they are working with other welfare groups or local authorities.

Our guests might also share with us their professional relationship with the local authorities. Many local authorities have substantial funding earmarked for animal welfare issues and not all of it has been drawn down by many of the local authorities, as I said earlier. Our guests might just touch on their professional working relationship with local authorities, the challenges involved and any recommendations in that regard.

Mr. Anthony Collins

I will hand over to my chairman, Mr. Fitzpatrick, who may answer those questions.

Mr. John Joe Fitzpatrick

We are a totally voluntary organisation. We were founded in Ballinasloe just after the implementation of Commission Regulation No. 504/2008 in 2009. We found an awful lot of people had serious problems in recognising there was regulation in respect of horses, that the area was going to be controlled and that sanctions were going to be introduced. We got those people together and had meetings. We started off with a voluntary committee, which we still have. More than 700 members contributed small donations in the first year. We had an awful lot of meetings throughout the country, giving out information and trying to help people. We set up a service with one or two local veterinarians and we did horse registration to bring them into compliance for a nominal fee of €30 at that time. Horses were microchipped in tens. We went out and gathered them up with farmers and we got them all registered. Since then, our committee has wound down. Approximately eight or ten of us work on a voluntary basis. We have not had funding from anybody.

The Senator asked about working with local authorities. I am a bit different to the other two members of Horse Care Ireland here with me because I run a horse abattoir for animal slaughter. We did a cull, destruction killing for the local authorities for Kildare and Laois for a while in 2011 and 2012 when there were many unwanted, low-value horses. In recent years, the animal welfare people have been taking those horses and rehoming them. It is not the most economic way for the taxpayer to do that but that is what is happening to most horses. I had a horse that was removed from lands and went through three welfare establishments before he was found in Cork. There was obviously money drawn off him for collection three or four different times.

On the issue of culling, what sort of numbers are involved? Mr. Fitzpatrick said that he conducted a cull at the invitation of the local authority. In terms of the oversight and welfare issues around the culling, what actually happened? Did all those horses go to registered knackers' yards for culling? Was the culling overseen by veterinary and animal welfare people? Mr. Fitzpatrick runs a private practice so he has a lot of knowledge of all of those matters and might share that with the committee.

Mr. John Joe Fitzpatrick

The animals were collected and taken in. We held them for two days before they were destroyed under veterinary supervision. Representatives from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine were also there. They have documentation of every animal that entered and exited and where the carcasses went for rendering.

What were the numbers involved?

Mr. John Joe Fitzpatrick

At that time, there were probably 30 or 40 a week.

I welcome our guests. As the Chair said earlier, we need to seek clarification on the numbers of unregistered horses that have been mentioned because I would question that. There may be confusion between the categorisation of thoroughbred, non-thoroughbred or whatever. Thoroughbred foals that will be registered eventually do not have to be registered until 31 December of the year of their birth. There is good reason for that. The insertion of a microchip in a very young foal may hinder or stop that foal from suckling its mother. Unless these figures can be massaged to reflect a time of year when many foals have not yet been registered, I would seriously question the numbers that have been mentioned here today. We will seek clarification on that matter.

In their submissions and contributions, our guests have talked about the online passport. Their submission referred to the concept of an online passport. I would like further clarification as to where Horse Care Ireland is on this matter. Has it done any worthwhile, thorough research on the possibilities? Has it had any communication with the powers that be, including the Department, that might progress the implementation of the online passport? Is it an issue on which our guests have done a lot of constructive work or is it, for want of a better word, a kind of pipe dream? While our guests have referenced the other animals on the farm and how it works with traceability, I would point out a difference between cattle, sheep and horses. I am on our guests' side and am playing devil's advocate here. The difference is that nobody would buy a cow as a pet and nobody will put a sulky cart behind a cow. A cow will be born onto a farm and will die there or be sold to another farmer, an abattoir or a meat plant. It cannot be sold again without being registered. However, some horses are not on farms. People use horses for events or use them in different ways to farm animals. While in theory it sounds good, as I said in the earlier session to the representatives from the Dogs Trust, it is easy to police the compliant, the problem is with the non-compliant. The people who are not registering the horses now will still not comply with an online passport system. A horse, of any category, must end its life somewhere. If people are selling horses without a passport, that means people are buying horses with a passport. Those are the real offenders and that is the root of our problem when it comes to untraceability and the issues we have within the horse community.

The debate over the past couple of minutes seems to have gone down an alley I did not foresee, that is, the exclusion of horse carcasses from the human food chain. I do not see the relevance of that at all. If we are solving the issue of unregistered and unlicensed horses, we cannot allow them into the food chain because other than identification, the main purpose of registering a horse through the horse licence is the recording of any veterinary medicines that are applied or administered to that horse during its life. They all have to be recorded on the licence and if we do not have that record, we do not know what we are allowing into the food chain. I am not of the opinion that opening up the inclusion of horse carcasses to the food chain will in any way be a solution to the problems we have with horse cruelty and the lack of registration of horses.

I do not know how we ended up going down that avenue and I am at a loss trying to follow that train of thought. Will Mr. Collins elaborate on that? Has work been done on the online passport or is it just a concept or an idea at this stage?

Mr. Michéal Leahy

Nobody is advocating putting horses that are out for late registration back into the food chain. There is another category of horses for which there are no figures, namely, horses that are out for medicinal treatment. An unknown number of horses receiving medicinal treatment are out of the food chain. Many of these horses are on holdings that are drawing farm payments. They are considered a farm animal and the raising and breeding of horses is considered an agricultural activity. There is nobody advocating putting horses where we cannot verify them.

Even in the case of horses that go into the food chain, when we compare them with other farm animals, audits for dairy and beef farm animals are carried out under the sustainable dairy assurance scheme, SDAS, and by Bord Bia, but no questions are asked about the medicinal treatment, traceability or registration of horses on the same farm holding and in the same enterprise. Farm payments will be drawn down for the herd number and horses are on the farm. As the Chairman has said, our online passport is entirely voluntary. We have liaised with people with online expertise about how to do this.

With regard to cattle registration, for instance, a calf can be registered in 20 days. That cannot be done with a horse if there is DNA and a microchip because the microchip has to be inserted by the competent person. Personally, I believe a farmer or breeder would be able to do that but, as matters stands, this is not allowed. Nobody advocating putting horses back into the food chain. It seems we do not want to have figures on the number of horses we have. Horses are being registered without pedigree. They could be of any breed, whether an Irish draught horse or a thoroughbred.

Every enterprise that is sustainable has an entry and exit and we should improve the entire sector. This year, we have three teams going to the Olympics. They are not a reflection of the full industry. We want to include everybody and make horse ownership affordable to everybody. Horses are used for people with autism and special needs. They are as good in their line of work as the horses going to the Olympics. They have a world-class talent and DNA. We should not front-load the price to disadvantage people. Where there is a scheme, there are schemers. Through ignorance and its application, the legislation has unintended consequences.

In the cattle sector, there is one central database and one entity deals with it on behalf of the Department. It deals with all of the registrations. There could be 40,000 calves registered within a week at peak times and the database can deal with that. The number of horses being registered, both thoroughbred and non-thoroughbred, is much smaller and they are registered over a large part of the year. We want an online database that handles movements and registrations, as is the case with cattle and dogs. People should have a registration number and be educated as regards ownership, be that for dogs or equines. While people's hearts may be in the right place, the unintended consequence of owning a dog is that something might go wrong when the owner lets a dog go for a run while out for a walk. If the dog does something wrong, is it the dog's fault or that of the owner?

We have no interest in putting horses into the food chain that cannot be accounted for. At the moment, medicinal treatment can be bought without prescription and given to a horse without the supervision of a vet. The problem is that it may not be given to the horse to which it is supposed to be given. If a horse is stamped out of the food chain, that horse can have medicinal treatment bought for it in compliance with the relevant regulations and with an appropriate passport because it is alive and well, on a holding and has an equine number. However, phenylbutazone or bute can be administered to another horse, including by mistake. Horses could eat out of the same feed containers and it could be administered through the feed. Another horse could actually ingest the medicine. When that horse goes for inspection, it will have a clean passport and will be eligible for the food chain.

We have owners in the upper end of the equine industry, both the thoroughbred and non-thoroughbred sectors, who have stamped horses out for medicinal treatment. That is fine. They can afford these horses and they can compete in the Curragh, the RDS or wherever. If something goes wrong, however, why should the taxpayer subsidise these horses' end-of-life care if the owners who can afford to do so are knowingly putting them out of the food chain in order that they can administer whatever medicinal treatment is deemed necessary by the keeper on a given day? Why should the taxpayer be potentially left facing a bill for a horse that the owner is fully capable of paying for to compete at international level? At the end of its life, it is not worth anything. What difference will it make to the taxpayer when nobody knows about it and the cost of caring for it is indirect cost? Nobody realises the taxpayer pays that cost.

We have an unknown number of horses, possibly running in the thousands. There is more medicinal treatment on the competition side of the sector. We have a big thoroughbred industry and a good number of horses competing in the non-thoroughbred sector. It is in that side of the industry, rather than the breeding side, that more medicinal treatment is given. That does not excuse anybody who makes that decision. These people are drawing down farm payments of up to six-figure sums and areas of natural constraint, ANC, payments and it is the taxpayer who pays.

Another point about the practice of stamping animals out of the food chain is that donkeys can be included for the purpose of drawing down farm payments, whereas horses were excluded at one stage. That has created a problem because if anything happens to those animals, they have to be cared for by animal welfare. For how many years into the future will that be a cost? These farmers still have an entitlement of up to 50% for the ANC payments.

We have several passport issuing offices in the current system. We have no central hub or database, as exists for cattle. That is the problem. As long as we have that system in place, we will have fly-by-night operators, for want of a better term. Front-loading the cost would mean a charge of between €60 and €80 to call out a vet and another €62 plus €22 charge for a pedigree passport. The total cost would be nearly €170. The cost would be significantly higher for a thoroughbred horse. The cheap option is to register the horse without any pedigree. A thoroughbred horse can be registered as a non-thoroughbred animal. There is also the issue for the stallion owner who has covered the mare and supplied the semen. Stallion owners have no way of knowing if a live foal is born because they do not monitor what happens. With a DNA base, where an animal cannot be registered without a DNA record, the person would be able to claim back the money to which he or she is entitled. Some very good horses have been born and registered with white passports, as they are called, without any breeding being recorded. Some have competed to a very high level in the sport horse industry.

No one is advocating threatening food security. We are trying to rehabilitate that. All inspections, SDAS and everything else should include horses at farm level, the same as with cattle, and there should be a full record of medicinal treatment. I hope that explanation brings clarity.

For the record, I am a thoroughbred owner and a member of owners' groups. Some very strong statements have been made about medicines being bought on one horse identification licence and being administered to another horse. That may be the exception but it is not the norm. It would be remiss of me not to defend myself and my colleagues in that regard. There are rogues in every sector of life, unfortunately. We seem to have deviated significantly from the topic, which is Horse Care Ireland and cruelty. We have gone down many different channels. The carry-on Mr. Leahy mentioned, if it is happening, would be the exception and not the norm.

I am more au fait with the position regarding dogs than horses. I must take issue with one of the comments made.

There was a warning about linking the dog licence and the microchip in terms of proof of ownership and increasing cost. A dog licence costs €20. The current online system has the space for the microchip. It is the law that the person selling the dog must microchip it. There is no extra cost to the person who is buying the dog, whether they are getting it as a result of a rescue or from a dog breeder. The law says you cannot sell or supply a dog that has not been microchipped in advance. Even then, the microchip costs €20. Linking the two does not increase those costs. What it does is ensures that some rogue individual can go to an animal welfare place, finds a dog it likes the look of, goes online, downloads a licence and then walks up and says "That's my dog", which is what is happening. It is happening regularly because there is no verification process around the dog licensing. Anyone can go online and just pay for a licence and get it.

The proposal in this regard is very well thought out. A very reputable dog welfare organisation has informed me that this is an issue, including when it goes to court in respect of animal welfare breaches. Unless the two are linked, there is a real issue regarding proof of ownership. You are obliged to have a microchip, you are obliged to have a licence, but it is the licence that is proof of ownership. I just wanted to clarify that. I am not au fait with how it works with horses and so on. There is no extra cost involved. This is just bringing the two things together so that there is cohesion.

I am familiar with the work of My Lovely Horse, an animal welfare organisation. One of its campaigns relates to a ban on online sales. Most online sales and advertisements are actually for horses, they are not for dogs. What is Horse Care Ireland's view on the concept of free to a good home? There are concerns that many adverts are going up online. These are not just in respect of horses, but those relating to horses are predominant. The horses involved are described as being available as "free to a good home", but we do not know what happens to them after that. Does Horse Care Ireland support the call to ban these ads or does it have an opinion on the matter?

Mr. John Joe Fitzpatrick

If an animal is advertised as free to a good home, there would have to be compliance with the regulation. There would have to be change of ownership. It would have to go to an equine premises that was registered, not some fly-by-night person buying the horse and pretending. There are flaws in the present system that they might hand over the passport but the change in ownership might never be done. If there is a microchip and DNA behind the horse, it is the seller's responsibility to protect himself or herself in order to make sure that it is transferred to the next owner so that the DNA can be traced any time from then on.

Is the issue similar to what we hear about the dogs, that the ads need to be verified.

Mr. John Joe Fitzpatrick

If dogs were the subject of DNA tracing as well -----

DNA is something that is in the mix but taking that out of it, is the issue not that where someone is able to put an advert online, whether it relates to a horse or a dog, we want the online platforms to be able to verify that the information is correct in advance of the advert going live. My experience with the dogs is that you report an ad and that it takes a couple of hours because it has to be reported a number of times for the algorithm to pick it up. By the time the ad is taken down, the dog has been sold. Would a solution come from making this information verifiable, so that people cannot put fake information online and adverts will just not go live if the information is incorrect?

Mr. John Joe Fitzpatrick

The only way it could be verifiable would be through a central database.

Mr. John Joe Fitzpatrick

We are saying that the same database should do for dogs and horses. If it is updated and properly backed by DNA, it is foolproof.

I asked about the organisation's experience with the horses that we have in urban areas, and the difficulties and problems surrounding that. Does Horse Care Ireland have any engagement in that regard or do its representatives wish to comment?

Mr. John Joe Fitzpatrick

As I said, we went to Dublin where we met several groups. We have sent our vet to Dublin on numerous occasions to register groups of horses.

How successful was that?

Mr. John Joe Fitzpatrick

It was very successful.

Are there are figures available?

Mr. John Joe Fitzpatrick

No, it was probably a couple of hundred, I would say, but it was back in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

From that experience, what would Horse Care Ireland recommend? What would it like to see happen?

Mr. John Joe Fitzpatrick

We would like to see all horses registered. Online registration would bring a lot into full compliance.

Returning to my question on what communication the groups before us today have had with other bodies about the online passport, have they had any discussions with Weatherbys, which, for example, registers thoroughbreds? How recent is the concept? Is any work being done or is it just a pipe dream?

Mr. John Joe Fitzpatrick

It is not a pipe dream. If we were to meet people with that attitude, we would not get far. We were up in Backweston and we met with officials from the Department's AIM division. They were very much in favour of it. They said they would move it on to the next level. We have been in contact with our counterparts in France who said they might try to push it from that side, even as recently as this morning. We have been in contact with the calf registration service in Clonakilty. It also said it would be very interested.

Has there been any communication with the Department?

Mr. John Joe Fitzpatrick

Yes, we met with representatives from the Department in Backweston.

On behalf of the committee, I thank Mr. Collins, Mr. Fitzpatrick and Mr. Leahy from Horse Care Ireland for engaging with us on his important issue. A number of things were raised that we will contact the Department about for clarification.

The meeting went into private session at 5.45 p.m and adjourned at 6.03 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 9 June 2021.