What can be done about fly grazing?

Last year’s horse meat scandal brought horse welfare to the forefront of the political agenda, media headlines and public awareness. It is difficult for horse lovers to believe that almost three and a half thousand horses had to be seized from neglectful owners last year alone and that the number is increasing.

This article looks at the recent horse welfare problems and the issue of fly grazing.

According to the British Horse Society, the number of horses being abandoned has increased significantly in recent years. There are numerous factors that have contributed to this increase, including the over breeding of horses (many of which are of poor quality), a depressed market in horse sales, the high price of winter feed and the lack of available grazing land. In recessionary times, many people cannot afford to look after their horses. Even the cost of humane euthanasia can be too much. Consequently, many horses are simply being abandoned. Welfare charities try to take in abandoned horses for rehoming but the sheer volume makes this unsustainable.

Fly grazing is the abandoning of animals (generally horses) on someone else’s private land without permission.

Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, it is a criminal offence to abandon a horse. However, due to limited policing resources and the difficulty of policing country fields, it is very difficult to catch someone abandoning their horses, which is made worse by the difficulty in actually identifying horse owners.  In many cases the wrongdoer will get away with it.

A further complication is that, once a horse is on a landowner’s private land, the landowner has a duty of care towards that horse and therefore becomes responsible for its welfare until its owner is found or comes forward. If landowners break that duty of care, they themselves break the law.  The legal ownership of the horse, however, remains with the person who abandoned it.

What should you do if you discover that horses have been abandoned on your land?

Under EU law, every horse must have a passport for it to be transported, sold or sent for slaughter. However, under The Animals Act 1971, the landowner must put up abandonment notices in prominent places for no less than 14 days before he can apply for such a passport. It then takes time to obtain a passport for a horse without a history that can be confirmed. As a result, landowners cannot do anything about the horse for at least 14 days, during which time they must care for it at their own cost.

The Welsh Assembly has recently brought in new laws to address these issues, giving local authorities the power to seize abandoned horses without permission. If the animals are not claimed by the owner within 7 days, they can be euthanased. England has not yet followed suit.

Practical points if you become a victim of fly grazing

  • Ensure that the horse is secure, for example that it cannot get onto a road.
  • Put up abandonment notices straight away for a minimum of 2 weeks and, if possible, a further week after this. Take photographs of the notices in place and check the notices regularly.
  • Keep a record of the actions you take to care for the horse, any legal advice you seek and any costs you incur.
  • Report the incident to your local police, the RSPCA and your local authority or council.
  • Check the horse for a freezemark  and ask your vet to scan the horse for a microchip.
  • Check to see if any of your fencing has been tampered with and take photographs.
  • Keep the abandoned horse away from your other horses in case of infections.

Minimising risk: Tips for landowners

  • Minimise risk by ensuring your land is secure. Lock field gates, fence off vulnerable areas, consider digging ditches and avoid leaving empty pockets of land to go to grass.
  • If you do rent out land, ensure you draw up a written contract.
  • If you feel particularly vulnerable, some insurance companies offer insurance covering fly grazing.

Minimising risk: Tips for livery yard owners

  • There have been some cases where owners seek livery or field rental with the intention of abandoning their horse.
  • Ensure you draw up a written contract with any new client and post the contract to them for signature (this way you will obtain their home address).
  • Ask for a payment for at least three months’ livery up front.

It remains to be seen whether the UK Government will introduce new legislation similar to that introduced in Wales in order to address this problem. This is a key area of debate.  However, we can only expect the problem to get worse as the new Welsh legislation pushes more fly grazers into England. Equine charities continue to lobby the UK Government for a change in the existing legislation, which they consider to be inadequate.

If you are concerned about fly grazing, it is recommended that you contact a solicitor to discuss your options to either deal with a current problem or prevent a potential issue.

This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.

Kieran Walshe

Partner - Head of Commercial Insurance and Head of Equine

As Head of DWF's Commercial Insurance team I advise on a range of high value and/ or complex litigation matters and misfeasance cases.