Are vets contributing to welfare problem?

01 April 2014, at 1:00am

Veterinary Practice reports on some of the sessions at last month’s National Equine Forum

EQUINE practitioners may be contributing to the current welfare problems of the UK horse population whenever they administer treatment that will permanently exclude an animal from the human food chain, according to a speaker at the National Equine Forum in London last month. 

There is a growing welfare crisis in Britain at present due to a surplus of low value horses and the shrinking demand caused by adverse economic conditions, he said.

Part of the solution must be to relax rules on the administration of veterinary medicines as they are preventing those horses being slaughtered for their meat.

Stephen Potter is a partner in L. J. Potter & Partners, one of only two remaining licensed equine abattoirs in the UK. The company operates from premises in Bristol and Taunton and the carcases are exported to a meat- cutting plant in northern France where there is a ready demand for the product. 

He argued that slaughter for human consumption was essential to protect the welfare of the wider horse population. “The role of the horse meat industry is to fill the gap when the seller of an otherwise fit horse cannot find a willing buyer. Without the industry, the value of an unwanted horse falls, bringing others down with it and leading to a downward spiral of neglect.”

Mr Potter warned that the numbers of surplus horses being neglected or abandoned was a result of two factors: the unwillingness of horse owners to face public opprobrium if they send horses for slaughter and the unsatisfactory rules on the administration of veterinary medicines.

When the Horse Passport Regulations 2004 were introduced, he said he was able to predict the impact of Section IX which requires that horses be permanently excluded from the food chain if they are treated with a medicine for which no maximum residue limit has been agreed. 

“I knew that the total loss of value due to that exclusion would perpetuate a moral hazard which could potentially lead to fraud. Also, the complexity of the licensing system would lead to the default exclusion of all horses by vets to protect their professional reputation. I am of the same view today.” 

Scientifically ignorant

He said it was “scientifically ignorant” to insist that the meat from horses treated using a medicine without an agreed MRL should be considered unsafe, as any agent will be completely eliminated from the body at some point.

Horses entering the EU from countries such as Canada are considered safe to eat when the last recorded treatment was more than six months ago. There should be similar rules to allow the consumption of home-bred animals which have received treatment at some stage in the past, through the issue of an amended passport.

Roly Owers, chief executive of World Horse Welfare, insisted that the use of the term “welfare crisis” was no exaggeration and the situation was getting worse. All the equine welfare charities reported the same problem: that their rescue shelters were full and they were having to start culling health horses for which they were unable to find a suitable home.

There are an estimated 7,000-plus horses that are neglected or abandoned around the country, he said.

Initiatives such as castration clinics for horses owned by the traveller community may have some value but dealing with the problem of surplus horses was a challenge for the whole equine world.

The main cause of the oversupply problem was the numbers of horse owners breeding just one or two foals rather than large-scale horse breeding operations, he explained. Nicolas de Brauwere, head of welfare and behaviour at the Redwings Horse Sanctuary, agreed with Mr Owers that introducing draconian new regulations to curb excessive breeding would not be a practical solution to the current problems. But what was needed was proper enforcement of the existing regulations, he said.

It is essential to be able to establish a clear link between neglected horses and their owners. So what is required is the introduction of an identification system involving compulsory microchipping of foals and the entry of ownership details for the animal on a national database, he said.