Compulsory microchipping won’t stop horse welfare catastrophe, fears RSPCA

As the microchipping of horses become compulsory this month, the RSPCA fears it will not be enough to prevent an impending horse welfare catastrophe.

As the charity launches its month-long rehoming drive, Adoptober, it reveals that the number of horses in its care is already three times what it was at the start of the last recession (2009) and said it is braced for huge numbers of abandoned and neglected horses in the country plunges into an even deeper financial downturn.

Although the RSPCA welcomes the change in the law to make microchipping mandatory irrespective of age, as it is for dogs, it warns the move is not enough alone to tackle the irresponsible breeders and owners at the heart of the equine crisis, which has now raged for eight years.

At the same time, many animal welfare organisations have seen donations plummet during the pandemic, and there is already huge pressure on resources. Animal welfare charities received no specific financial help during lockdown and the RSPCA is calling on the government to give financial support to the sector for its vital work during one of toughest years in RSPCA history.

One horse recently rescued by the RSPCA is a foal (above image) – believed to have been dumped – which was found tangled in a barbed wire fence in Egham, Surrey, last week. The foal, thought to be around three to six months old, had several cuts to its hind legs, was underweight and had a badly swollen eye.

The foal wasn’t microchipped so no owner could be traced. Sadly, the foal was so poorly that he did not make it.

Chris Sherwood, Chief Executive of the RSPCA said: “New legislation demanding compulsory microchipping of all horses irrespective of age is set to come into effect in England this month; currently around 70% of the horses we rescue are not microchipped. When it came in for dogs, the number of strays reduced by 20% in four years, but unfortunately, we just don’t think that’s going to happen for horses. Without rigorous enforcement and tough financial penalties, there is little to stop irresponsible horse owners continuing to breed and dump their animals. Local authorities, who are in charge of enforcement of equine identification regulations, are already operating with extremely limited resources and are facing the huge challenges of Covid, the recession and Brexit.

“The RSPCA and other equine welfare organisations have been struggling to pick up the pieces of the horse crisis since the last recession and as we enter what could be the biggest financial downturn of a generation, the sector is already bursting at the seams and facing unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic.

“Equine charities fear that autumn will create the perfect storm as grazing decreases, the end of furlough and the deepening recession will see more owners struggling with costs of care leading to neglect and abandonment, yet people have been continuing to breed horses despite Covid. Alongside this, equine rescues, already reporting a sharp drop in funds, may start to go under as the financial situation bites, which will increase the burden on the RSPCA. We are calling on the Government to step in with financial support as they have for other charities affected by the pandemic and recognise that the vital services provided by the animal welfare sector are under huge strain.”

Covid crisis impact survey

A recent Covid crisis impact survey by the National Equine Welfare Council and Association of Dogs and Cats Homes revealed nearly two thirds of equine rescues reported a greater than 50% drop in donations to the equine rescue charity sector, leaving the majority of organisations reporting that they only had funds for six months or did not know how long their funds would last.

Chair of the National Equine Welfare Council (NEWC), Nicolas de Brauwere MRCVS, said: “The Animal Welfare Acts are excellent tools to support both prevention of equine suffering and intervention when this has already occurred, but to be effective we need the owner of the horse to be identified- otherwise the only option for animal welfare charities is to treat the animal as abandoned, which incurs huge cost to organisations relying solely on donations from the general public to carry out their work.

“Since equine identification legislation has come into effect, and especially now that all equines in England should be microchipped from 1st October onwards (from 12th February 2021 for Wales), we have the tools needed to associate all equines with an owner. But the system is in its infancy and is also playing catchup with a large number of equines not properly documented. Local authorities, not animal welfare charities, have the power to enforce the regulations. NEWC are very keen to launch conversations with them about how we can work together and support them in their bid to gain the capacity to do this work, so that we see the welfare improvement that these equine identification changes promise”.

Microchipping is crucial to trace owners

Cllr Nesil Caliskan, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said: “Microchipping laws have helped councils to reunite stray dogs with their owners and we urge horse owners to comply with the new law and ensure that microchip details are kept up to date to help improve animal welfare.

“Microchipping not only reduces the huge cost to the public purse, it also reduces fees for unplanned stays in kennels or stables as microchipped animals can be returned to their owners more quickly than those which are not microchipped and typically take longer to trace. The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing pressures on councils’ regulatory services, which in many places are now at tipping point. We want to work with the government ahead of the Spending Review to ensure councils have enough funding to maintain vital trading standards and environmental health services, as local authorities continue to lead local work to tackle COVID-19.”

The RSPCA responded to 5,444 incidents concerning horses since the pandemic lockdown began in late March, and it’s estimated by equine charities that there are as many as 7,000 horses currently at risk of abandonment and neglect in England and Wales.

Last year (2019) the charity rehomed 246 horses, but almost 760 remain in the charity’s care to date, desperately needing new homes. At the time of the last recession, the RSPCA had 250 horses in its care in 2009, but following that downturn, numbers peaked at nearly 1200 in 2013.

The charity’s equine staff are appealing to experienced horse owners across England and Wales to consider rehoming a rescue horse if they possibly can. This month as the charity’s rehoming campaign Adoptober launches, staff are keen to showcase the versatility and capability of the horses they rescue, whether they are ridden horses, companion animals or youngsters with heaps of potential.

Throughout the month of October, the RSPCA is shining a light on animals in its care which need a new home and promoting the benefits of adopting a rescue animal through its Adoptober campaign. The RSPCA is the UK’s biggest rehomer, finding 39,178 homes for pets last year – that’s 107 a day, or four an hour.

Under the current Covid rehoming protocols anyone interested in fostering or adopting an animal from the RSPCA should visit the website to see which animals are available near you and should check with their local centre for the current process applicable in that area.