Thursday, 11 October 2018

Questions (8)

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

8. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine further to Parliamentary Question No. 592 of 18 September 2018, if he is satisfied that local authorities are enforcing the Control of Horses Act 1996 adequately, his views on having multiple horse wardens with a particular focus on problem areas for horse abuse and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41482/18]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

This is a follow up to a previous parliamentary question. Is the Minister satisfied that local authorities are enforcing the Control of Horses Act 1996 adequately? What are his views on having multiple horse wardens with a particular focus on problem areas for horse abuse?

Officials from my Department recently met with members of the local authority control of horses working group to discuss this matter. There is a general consensus that the current approach continues to reduce problems regarding wandering horses despite the persistence of a small number of irresponsible horse owners. Overall, the Control of Horses Act 1996, which provides powers to local authorities to deal with stray and abandoned horses, has worked well over the past 20 or so years.

The number of horses being seized nationally continues to decline from 4,923 in 2014 to 1,603 in 2017 and 806 to date in 2018. This reduction is reflective of a number of factors, including initiatives being progressed by my Department in the animal welfare area as well as the active enforcement of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 and the EU equine identification regulations. In tandem with the work of the local authorities under the Control of Horses Act, officials of my Department have been directly involved in a number of horse seizures and have initiated prosecutions under the Animal Health and Welfare Act.

Horse exports have increased substantially in recent years helping to bring about a much greater balance between supply and demand. In addition, animal welfare charities have been re-homing an increasing number of horses abroad. The increased emphasis on re-homing of horses is being assisted greatly through my Department's funding to animal welfare organisations. A total of €2.56 million has been paid to 111 organisations to assist their work in animal welfare in 2018. A number of these organisations are actively involved in rescuing and re-homing neglected horses.

My Department also provides funding to local authorities to support the development of urban-Traveller horse projects in their respective areas. To date, funding of €1,004,447 has been drawn down across several local authorities, including a contribution of €534,024 to South Dublin County Council towards the development of the Clondalkin Equine Club. Funding has also been provided for projects and actions in Kildare, Kilkenny, Longford, Limerick, Leitrim, Cork, Meath, Offaly and Wicklow. These projects focus on education and they create awareness about compliance with animal welfare regulations thereby contributing to the reduction in the numbers of straying horses. My Department continues to stress that it is the responsibility of individuals to ensure the welfare of horses in their ownership and-or care and to ensure that when they no longer have a need for the animal, they are disposed of in an appropriate and responsible way.

The matter of employing "horse wardens" is an issue for the local authorities to consider. Local authorities are legally entitled to appoint authorised officers under the Control of Horses Act and the Animal Health and Welfare Act. In their consideration of the need for additional authorised officers, account would no doubt be taken on the overall improvements that have taken place in respect of the stray horse issues in recent years, the particular circumstances in their local area and indeed the excellent work of animal welfare charities.

This sounds very good on paper but the reality is different. We have appalling cases of horse abuse. Last Thursday, a number of animal welfare groups came together outside Leinster House under the banner of action for animal welfare. We heard case after case of abuse these groups know about. They are picking up the pieces because the Animal Health and Welfare Act is not being enforced adequately. Despite what the Minister says, local authorities, which are funded by the Government, are not enforcing the Control of Horses Act. They just impound and kill animals or remove dead animals. In the past 11 months, Tipperary County Council has spent €155,800 on removing dead horses. We have dog wardens and litter wardens so could the Department not give the lead with the local authorities? It could even produce a pilot scheme. We know where the black spots are. The local authorities could work with the owners before the abuse starts. They could work on things like the care of animals, including worming and foot care. We could also ensure that horses, ponies and donkeys are micro-chipped, registered and kept in proper equine-registered properties with equine space. A horse warden could have a lorry that could impound animals on the spot with Garda protection if this is necessary, because we know it has been necessary in places, so that we do not have the cases of starving animals with appalling illnesses that we hear about every day.

I appreciate the Deputy's consistent interest in this area and the collaborative efforts made by my Department, local authorities and charitable bodies. The graph is going in the right direction. That being said, we are all shamed by such incidents, which get a lot of traction, particularly on social media. Sometimes they distort the endeavour that is under way and the very good work being done by all the aforementioned in terms of trying to address this problem. The statistics clearly show this good work, although one cannot hide behind them when one is confronted by the graphic images we see. The Deputy referred to Tipperary County Council.

The appointment of horse wardens is an issue for local authorities, not the Department, but where there are specific problems, it might be a response they consider to be appropriate.

It is important that we all continue to collaborate. We are making great progress. The legislative framework is in place and there have been high-profile prosecutions which are important, although I often think they are a reflection of the ultimate failure. We ought to work with a lot less stick and more carrot, but we must retain the stick.

First, will the Department have the conversation with local authorities about the need for a local horse warden? That could pre-empt some of the problems that we see. Second, there are hundreds of horses in the Dublin City Council area. Each should have a chip and a passport and those in the controlled area should have a licence. The council only issued 15 licences. It is something that should be looked at. I acknowledge the work of the Clondalkin Equine Club. Third, when there is a fodder crisis, is there a contingency plan for the animal welfare groups who are trying to feed animals that have suffered neglect?

Under the Horse Racing Ireland Act 2016, if a horse is found to have been doped, it is banned. I am sure that something would also happen the owner, but will the Minister clarify what happens to the horse? That is another issue we must look at.

Finally, if the Minister will not go along with the idea of a horse warden, what is the alternative? He says this policy working but there are graphic examples where it is not. A pilot scheme in some of the black spots could add to what the Department is doing and make a difference.

As I said, we had recent consultation with local authorities but it is not for us to tell local authorities to recruit wardens. Under the Control of Horses Act, it is something they may do themselves. I appreciate, as a former member of a local authority, there are many competing demands on their resources. Some have wardens but many have not, and it is not something about which we can instruct. That engagement on this is ongoing, particularly regarding what are considered to be hot spots.

Education has a critical role to play. Initiatives such as the Clondalkin Equine Club are important in that context because it provided an opportunity to recognise the culture relating to the urban horse. In Irish society, we celebrate the horse, horse racing, the sport horse and so on, but the urban horse is as much a part of that cultural story as any other. Facilities such as that in Clondalkin are important in recognising that but also in showcasing how the best treatment and practice should be delivered. That is crucial to all those involved.

It is important that the collaborative endeavour continues and my Department will continue to work with all the voluntary organisations which do tremendous work in that area. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that we are in a far better position now than we were. Nevertheless, one case is one too many.