“I know what happens, but I do not want to think about it”

Firstly, a bit of history: there have been equines in Wales for thousands of years. In the Middle Ages, there is reference in the literature to Welsh Cobs known then for their speed, jumping and carrying capabilities. They were the work horses of their time before the introduction of draught horses. In 1535, Henry VIII brought in the Breed of Horses Act which ordered the destruction of all stallions under 15hh and mares under 13hh, aimed to “improve” breeding (in particular of war horses).

The Act was short-lived, and repealed in 1556 by Elizabeth I as the poorer lands could not support the larger breeds. How thoroughly Henry’s legislation was ever applied is difficult to assess, but many of the mountain and moorland ponies escaped culling and continued to breed in the uplands. Wilder horses have continued to live on marginal land since then and seen as part of Wales’ heritage and landscape. However, it’s not all romance…..

To move to the present day and back to the ever-thorny issue of equine ID. The Welsh Government website states in relation to the Movement rules “Owners of horses must have an ID document or passport for each horse. When they apply for a passport, the animal must be micro-chipped”.

So far, so clear. The website then goes on to say:

“Wild or semi wild horse and ponies can remain in a given area without either a passport or micro-chip, if:

They are part of a pre-defined population of wild or semi wild ponies (for example – Carneddau ponies).

This is called a derogation.”

The Government website further states that it is “important” to have this derogation because:

“Semi-feral ponies are part of our landscape, culture and heritage. They provide conservation benefits, helping to maintain the ecology of their environment. The hardiness of the breed is maintained by where they live.

But many of the ponies (colt foals in particular) are of low value. So, it is uneconomic to passport and micro-chip them.

Owners need to manage their herds; this includes the disposal of surplus stock. The derogation allows owners to:

  • remove surplus animals without the extra cost of micro-chipping. The cost could be greater than the value of these animals
  • take animals to a slaughterhouse, as long as they can prove their identity” .

To focus on these words:

  • the ponies are assumed by the Welsh Government to have owners;
  • those owners need to manage their stock; and
  • it is assumed that a surplus, given their low value, will be slaughtered.

However, if these ponies are recognised as part of our “landscape, culture and heritage” providing conservation benefits, should they not be treated with more esteem than low value animals to be slaughtered when “surplus”?

CFH’s experience says that allowing horses to remain unidentified and unidentifiable in our landscapes permits abandonment, poor welfare and unsustainable breeding (something CFH sees a great deal of). Many of the ponies living out on wilder terrain are being farmed but without the passporting and movement controls that give a structure of protection to other farmed animals. On Gower many farmed animals have access to the space afforded by the substantial moors and marshes.

Protected status has recently been given to Welsh Gower Salt Marsh Lamb.

Why is this relevant? All sheep and cattle that graze the landscape of Wales must be identified, which in turn allows identification of who is responsible for that animal’s welfare, should the need arise. This however is not currently granted to the equines that roam our landscape, despite being presented as “part of our landscape, culture and heritage.”

Why do we, CFH, bring this to your attention in this newsletter?

Beyond the sadness felt about so many young ponies going to slaughter, there is a practical welfare issue to address. Many equine welfare organisations have sought to step in when there are horses suffering from poor condition and over breeding. Efforts are made to feed, medicate, castrate and also rehome.

This, of course, can only deal with the consequences and not with the cause. These actions are costly to the welfare organisations (and those that generously donate to their funds). But there is no built-in deterrent in these exercises for those that own/farm the equines to better manage the herds. Every spring the stallions run with the mares and the cycle continues.

There are groups across Wales which organise feeding parties on commons – due to the visible welfare issues that they can see. We have no criticism their good intentions but, that it is necessary is, in itself, surely wrong. These equines should not need to be fed by members of the public. The owners of these animals, the land managers and the land owners are responsible for the livestock on their land. If the animals are there without permission then there is legislation in place which may be applied – and action taken. Derogation from the obligation to passport and microchip has allowed many wilder horses across Wales to be without identification of individuals with responsibility for their good management and wellbeing.

We continue to use our local knowledge and our “boots on the ground” approach to press for a wider appreciation of the welfare issues faced by Wales’ wilder ponies and to work with the British Horse Council and Animals Welfare Network Wales for genuine practical improvements, using the legislative framework in place.