Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 18 June 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Animal Welfare and the Control and Management of Horses: Discussion
I remind Members to ensure their mobile telephones are turned off before we commence the meeting. Today we are discussing animal welfare and the control and management of horses. I welcome, Mr. Martin Blake, chief veterinary officer, and Mr. Dermot Murphy, principal officer, animal health and welfare division from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and, from the Local Government Management Agency, Mr. Paddy Mahon, chair of the County and City Management Association environment, climate change and emergency planning committee, Mr. Joe Boland, director of services, environment, Kildare County Council and Mr. Garrett Shine, veterinary officer, Louth County Council. I thank them for coming before the committee to discuss animal welfare, specifically, issues concerning the control and management of the equine sector.
Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of the proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I understand both bodies have made submissions, which members have read. Perhaps the witnesses could summarise their submissions in three minutes. I call Mr. Blake to lead off.
Mr. Martin Blake:
We welcome the opportunity to come before the committee. As the Chairman stated, I am accompanied by my colleague, Mr. Dermot Murphy, principal officer in the animal health and welfare division.
In our submission, we provided a brief overview on animal welfare as a concept and how it evolved over the years. It was legislatively provided for in the century before last, yet it is only since the 1960s that the science has developed.
It is a complex issue. We emphasise that assessing an animal's welfare is not a binary issue. If one looks at welfare in the extreme, one can have both positive and, at the other end, negative. Invariably, it is somewhere in the continuum in between because so much impacts on animals' welfare.
I make reference to the major strides that have taken place in Ireland in recent years with a view to bringing about improved welfare outcomes. I mention in particular the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013. This brought greater clarity to the range of interconnected issues involved, leading to greater societal awareness and understanding. It also brought greater clarity to certain matters and has supported more effective implementation. Of critical importance in the Animal Health and Welfare Act is the clear enunciation that the owner or person in charge of a kept animal has primary legal responsibility for its welfare.
That said, the Department continues to devote considerable attention and resources to animal welfare issues through its regional veterinary offices and the licensed slaughter premises that it supervises. We have in place an animal helpline, which encourages members of the public to bring to our attention any issues of animal welfare. In the submission, I provided figures for the number of calls that the helpline has taken in the past number of years. There were 321 calls received in 2017, 446 in 2018, and 136 so far this year.
The Department is also supported in animal welfare issues by the charities involved. The Department provided significant funding to these charities over the years, and gave €2.75 million at the end of 2018. That doubled the support to the charities since 2013. A number of the officers within the larger charities have been made authorised officers under the Animal Health and Welfare Act and they are an additional resource to deal with animal welfare issues, particularly in the urban and peri-urban areas. Other significant welfare legislation emanates from the EU relating to the transport of animals and the welfare of animals at killing.
A key focus over the past while has been the development of an animal welfare strategy. A consultation process was launched by the Minister, Deputy Creed, in September last and we are working towards bringing that to fruition in the next number of weeks. Hopefully, by the end of the summer, we will deliver an animal welfare strategy for Ireland. We very much appreciate the involvement of the various stakeholders and we received good responses.
We have a number of advisory committees. The farm animal welfare advisory committee involves all stakeholders and we engage with those on a number of animal welfare issues. They have been singularly successful in delivering an early warning system for on-farm welfare issues that arise at farm level and in developing guidelines for animal owners and keepers. We are also supported by the scientific advisory committee on animal health and welfare, which has given us scientific advice on a number of issues, such as husbandry practices on farm and the killing of animals.
I would like to mention the "One Welfare" concept. It is referred to our submission and I will not dwell on it. Essentially, it is new thinking in the context of the interdependence between human well-being and animal welfare. There is clear science behind that now showing an interconnection between human well-being and animal welfare.
Moving on to equine welfare, broadly speaking, it is similar to the welfare of all other animals. It is subject to the same legislative framework. It is somewhat different in that generally equines live much longer. They are kept for a greater variety of reasons.
They may experience a change in utility during their life, especially those that have been kept for athletic or sporting purposes. They may be treated with animal remedies that are not available for use in other food producing animals. Given their longevity, they are expensive to keep. On an individual basis, they are predisposed to being transported more often than any other individual animal. Their economic value varies significantly depending on what they are being bred and kept for.
The Department pays particular attention to the welfare of horses. We encounter similar presenting signs to those of other animals, such as different degrees of neglect and cruelty being inflicted on the animals in other cases. A confounding factor with the welfare of horses, which is almost unique when dealing with farmed animals, is the issue of stray animals. This is not new. The Control of Horses Act was introduced in 1996 to address that issue. This gave powers to local authorities to control where horses could be kept and powers to seize straying horses. This straying phenomenon has been compounded more recently by a recognised practice of some horses being abandoned. These events are relatively infrequent. However, they are quite stark and, from an animal welfare perspective, it is totally unacceptable that any domesticated animal would be abandoned by its owner.
In both scenarios, straying and abandoned animals are subject to seizure under the Control of Horses Act. While still at an unacceptable level, the overall numbers seized have been falling year on year from a high of approximately 5,000 in 2014 to less than 1,500 last year. The reduction in numbers and greater rehoming possibilities in Europe are assisting the situation, which leads to reduced numbers of animals being euthanised. One of the greatest challenges in dealing with straying and abandoned horses is the difficulty in establishing the ownership or person in charge. This reflects how the identification and traceability system in the industry has evolved. In recent years, we have introduced two new statutory instruments, one relating to identification of equidae and the other to deal with control on places where horses are kept.
The Department has engaged in preventative measures and education, engaging with local authorities, charities involved in equine welfare and other interested parties. We have developed State-sponsored equine centres in a number of urban areas and projects at the edge of provincial towns that involve stabling facilities for those that find it difficult to access land. For example, in Dublin, the Department was pleased to assist in the financing of the Clondalkin Equine Club with South Dublin County Council. The Department is also involved in projects involving the Traveller community in Carrick-on-Shannon and Longford. The committee will have noted the launch last week by the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, of the outcome of a research project on Traveller horse ownership, which was funded by the Department.
The Department has also undertaken an initiative in raising awareness of the critical importance of good horse welfare among road racing sulky participants and the owners and keepers of trotting horses. We have engaged a relevant education provider to deliver an education programme to these people. A key element of the programme is to encourage participants to move off-road and to engage with regulated Irish Harness Racing Association, IHRA, activities. The Department also supports an education programme with a focus on horse welfare in schools in Limerick city. The results to date have been positive with employment opportunities being pursued with the assistance of the Racing Academy and Centre for Education in the Curragh and a number of training yards.
I hope I have given the committee a broad overview of animal welfare and the activities of the Department. There is more information in the document submitted. We are pleased to take any questions that members have.
Mr. Paddy Mahon:
I thank the Chairman for the invitation to appear. Our paper is taken to have been read but I will address some key points of it, hopefully not repeating what Mr. Blake has said. Local authorities are responsible for the control of horses under the 1996 Act and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is the primary agency for animal welfare under the 2013 Act. The number of horses seized over the past number of years is down but the number euthanised, while it has gone down, remains unacceptably high. Our experience in local authorities is that we deal with nuisance horses that pose danger to the public. They are generally in urban areas, on public lands and sometimes on semi-private lands. We hear on "AA Roadwatch" about loose horses on our roadways. We encounter them regularly in public spaces and on local authority housing estates. Generally, local authorities seize and impound the horses by contract. It is expensive and dangerous. Our response is generally reactive and firefighting. Most of the horses that are seized are not microchipped. The maximum subvention at present is €375 per horse if it is euthanised and €200 if it is rehomed. There is no subvention if the horse is reclaimed. The cost to the local authority would be between €500 and €1,000 per horse.
Equine welfare is the main subject of concern to the committee and we feel that it is inextricably linked to the control of horses. We have a number of proposals for improvement in our submission. We should try to deal with the causes rather than the symptoms of the problem. We believe there should be vigorous enforcement, hopefully involving a multi-agency response or a task force for each county or region, which has worked in other areas in our experience, comprising local authorities, the Department, the Garda, and other relevant agencies, targeting specific areas of concern. We believe there should be greater recourse to local by-laws, especially in the designation of exclusion zones. The review of the Control of Horses Act needs to be prioritised. We believe that the potential for a service-level agreement between local authorities and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine would be beneficial. We believe that one is in place between the Department and ISPCA, and between the Department and us in other areas. We successfully operate service level agreements in partnership with other agencies and Departments to achieve common goals and shared visions.
Mr. Joe Boland:
I submitted a PowerPoint presentation but, in the interests of time, I will not necessarily go through every bullet point. This is still a significant issue. According to our records, there were 1,603 seizures of equines in 2017. It is a resource intensive activity, requiring significant manpower, equipment and holding facilities in the form of pounds. There are health and safety issues, significant cost implications and animal welfare concerns. Most of the animals that are seized have welfare issues. While legislation has been strengthened recently, there is little evidence of compliance with regard to horses that are seized. All that said, there is good co-operation between the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, local authorities, the Garda and other entities. With regard to cost, up until recently, much of the cost fell on the local authority. That may change with the new national tendering but much of the cost will still fall to local authorities. The benefit of national tendering still has to be fully assessed.
There are significant challenges since there are not many impounding contractors on the market, so the market is not strong. There is a culture of carelessness on the part of some horse owners. Most horses that are seized are in poor condition. Few are microchipped. There is also the issue of stray horses on undeveloped zoned land, and the issue of adverse possession could be mentioned in that context. Few horses are rehomed, and I think the figure for euthanasia in 2017 was 75%. There is evidence from the past of local authorities being used as an expensive disposal service for unwanted horses. It is a particular problem in urban areas, especially cities. The merits of keeping a horse in an urban area are questionable on welfare grounds. There are problems with seizing horses in urban areas since significant costs and health and safety issues can be involved. Some 1,600 horses were seized in 2017.
The problem has abated somewhat but it has not gone away. I would emphasise the need to deal with the root causes rather than the symptoms, and to examine why we have so many stray and unwanted horses. The issue of animal welfare is to be emphasised although the legal position is that welfare is a matter for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Our role in respect of welfare is incidental to our control role.
Moving on to point 8 on the slide, we agree that local initiatives involving animal charities are part of the solution. The Dunsink project has been hailed as a particularly good example in that regard. In terms of moving forward, I would emphasise the importance of a multi-agency approach involving all the stakeholders: the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, ourselves, the local authorities, the Garda, animal welfare groups, representatives of horse owners, and the farming community. I would also emphasise the need for collaborative enforcement, especially around equine ID. By-laws and exclusion zones are part of the solution. There are examples where that approach has worked well. We advocate the move to full traceability of all horses through effective enforcement, similar to cattle. It is more complex if we are dealing with outside-the-gate issues, as it were. All owners should be fully accountable. A review of the Control of Horses Act is urgently required in the view of the local authority sector. The emphasis should be on a multi-agency approach dealing with the causes rather than the symptoms. Much of what we do tends to be reactive. A greater emphasis on dealing with the causes would be a better approach.
I thank the witnesses for the presentation. I have raised this matter on a few occasions and requested that it be dealt with by the committee. My county has unfortunately had a good few examples of the ill treatment of horses. I would put horses and dogs in the one category in that regard. We have seen horses been driven in harness to the point of collapse, pulling loads inappropriate for their size. In Knocklofty the winter before last we had starvation issues on lands that were in public ownership. Thankfully, this winter came extremely mild. We would have had a lot more issues this winter if it had been in any way wet or harsh.
There was mention of horses in urban areas. There are probably two classes of ownership here. We have horses in urban areas where a person has one or two horses under his or her care. However, we also have people with herds of horses. There might not be many such people but they are there. They are using public lands or land belonging to semi-State companies to graze these animals. They are in it for profit. They are not keeping those horses to lose money. Mr. Blake was talking about ring-fencing accessibility for horses to the food chain. If horses are not microchipped, how can we be sure they are not entering the food chain? I have heard reports that a significant number of horses belonging to these gentlemen are making their way across the Border and to abattoirs in different countries. What percentage of the horses that have been seized and euthanised were microchipped? I am a farmer. We have very strict regulations. Animals have to be tagged within 14 days of birth. A significant number of horses are not microchipped and there does not seem to be any focus on improving the situation. Until we have that kind of traceability, how can we be confident about the controls we have over them?
There was talk of better education about the welfare of animals. That is extremely important. The message has to be gotten across to people that ownership of animals comes with responsibility. There also has to be respect, especially in housing estates. One of the speakers asked if it is appropriate to have these animals in urban housing estates. One would wonder. Green areas there are for recreation, not for residents to use for grazing their horse or a number of horses. I was in a town in my county recently and the youth soccer team was going playing a match in the field beside their estate. Before they could play their match, the first job was that three or four men had to go around with shovels taking the horse manure off the field. That should not be the case with a public amenity like a soccer field. It is there for the youth of the town or whoever wants to use it. It is not a grazing ground for some residents' horses. On approaches to towns, we see horses tied in a narrow space grazing on lay-bys where access to water and so on would be very questionable. There are definitely too many horses being kept by people who are not landowners. They do not have the resources to feed these animals, especially in winter time. Many of the horses are being kept on land illegally. The vast majority are unidentifiable as they are not microchipped or registered and do not have horse passports.
I do not know if my county is unique in having all these incidents. We had another case about three or four months ago where a young girl crashed into a horse late at night. She is in the Mater since the accident waiting to go to Dún Laoghaire for rehab. Unfortunately, the poor young lady is paralysed from the neck down; that looks to be her future. She has no one to claim against. No one owns the horse when something like this happens. The horse had strayed onto the road. Some people feel that owning an animal is part of their culture. We are not debarring anyone from keeping animals but responsibility comes with it. People have to have the resources to look after animals and they have to have respect for other people living in their locality.
I will go back to the people who have these large herds of horses. Bord na Móna is the most guilty party in my county. Many horses are grazing on Bord na Móna land. The men who are grazing those horses are commercial individuals. They are definitely not keeping them to lose money. The horses are being fattened on that land and they are moving somewhere. That needs to be investigated. We have the microchipping of horses regulations of 2016 but I have serious concerns that they are not being enforced. Until we enforce them, it is going to be very hard to get on top of this issue. When incidents come to me and we report them, as regards horses being seized and taken to the pound, I have no complaints whatsoever. It is a very expensive way of dealing with the problem, however. As was said in one of the presentations, according to the legislation the Department should be covering the cost but, at best, the cost is now divided 50-50 between the county councils and the Department. State agencies have a responsibility to manage their land stocks. Horses that are grazing illegally should be removed. These lands could be managed better. The HSE has the guts of 300 acres of land in Clonmel. That land should be given to a tillage man, in my view, so that it would be in a crop and there would be a serious responsibility there.
A herd of horses would not be allowed to traipse across it so easily then. There is a responsibility on State agencies to ensure their lands are not being illegally occupied. Last year, pictures appeared on Facebook of a horse with a broken leg that was tied to a gate near Newport and left to die. Again, nobody could be held responsible because there was no microchip in the horse.
Dogs are another issue. We have a problem with lurchers. Gangs of people from different areas hold sports with lurchers. Competitions are held over how many hares a lurcher can kill in a day. Groups of people will follow eight, nine, ten or 12 lurchers. Bets are placed on this illegal hunting. The Garda is finding it very hard to impound these dogs. The legislation around the seizure of dogs definitely needs to be improved. When the authorities come upon these gangs, it is very hard to have all the personnel required to seize dogs. This can happen on a Sunday afternoon but the dog warden and the members of the Garda must be in place. It can be extremely difficult to have all the i's dotted and the t's crossed. Legislation must be strengthened in order that dogs can be seized immediately when people trespass on land for illegal hunting
I want to ask three questions. The first concerns microchipping. Is a plan in place to microchip the vast majority of horses? Really there should be 100% compliance. There is no place for any leniency when dealing with bovines. Is the legislation regarding dogs and horses strong enough to allow the Department and county councils to do what they want to do? Are there enough resources to control the issue? When I have contacted the authorities on specific cases the response has been very good but I know of people in my county who are being intimidated by people with large numbers of horses. That situation should not be allowed to continue.
I thank the Department and the local authorities for their comprehensive presentations and for providing their excellent submissions prior to the meeting to give us an opportunity to review them. This used to be a predominantly urban issue but in the decade or so since the downturn it has become more prevalent in rural areas. That is part of the problem. I broadly agree with the points made by Deputy Cahill. State and semi-State agencies have a serious duty and obligation to ensure that any lands or premises under their control or owned by them are managed and grazed properly and appropriately. Every occupier's land must be clearly identified and a full account must be made of all animals grazed on the land. This should be submitted to the local authority or to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine or to both.
I was a member of Westmeath County Council when this Act was passed. There were several problems. I got a bit cheesed off because the Department simply sent instructions to the local authority. It never sent a shilling. There were no resources, just an instruction to get on with it. At that time, there was no rate in place at local authority level and the responsibility was simply devolved. A responsibility without resources is an absolute disaster for a local authority. I am sure the local authorities will recall this. In the 1990s and the 2000s there was not a shilling available. That is a lacuna. That was obviously a political decision. Mr. Murphy knows very well that it is very easy to sidestep that, but it is a political responsibility. However, as a senior official within the Department, it is important that he knows that and I think he does.
Another big problem in this area is the splintering of responsibilities. One cannot implement anything by giving Willie Penrose one responsibility and another responsibility each to Charlie McConalogue, Marcella Corcoran Kennedy and Martin Kenny. That is a recipe for not getting the job done. There must be an umbrella body to deal with this. This was going on in 1997. I remember it well. That is more than 22 years ago. If we live for another 20 years we will still be talking about it. Let us be clear. Let us stop being a talking shop. People out there are fed up with talking shops. Let us put our heads together. Nobody should recoil and run off to the Attorney General for advice just because one of us suggests something. Let us take a practical view. I agree with the broad thrust of what Mr. Mahon and the county managers say. They are right. The Act is 22 years old and life has evolved. Things have changed and it is not fit for purpose. The key point is that we must allocate money to ensure that the objectives are achieved, realised and implemented. How could we expect otherwise, particularly in the last ten years when local authorities have not been able to do the things they are meant to do, that is, their mandatory responsibilities in this regard?
Very often local authorities are in a reactive phase. They hear about a problem and race out to address it. As far as I know from Westmeath, Longford and those areas they only have one veterinary person. That person's primary responsibility is dealing with the food chain. They are used to dealing with abattoirs and things like that. I remember it quite well. They have big responsibilities in those areas. Those people then have to race out to deal with horses and everything else. This is a huge area. I do not blame anybody or at least I do not blame officials. We at the political level have nicely sidestepped this.
What represents a danger to the public or a nuisance? The Act has been challenged three or four times. Issues have arisen as a result of those challenges. I know an awful lot of stuff is going on in the Department. It is dealing with Brexit and the Common Agricultural Policy. The last thing officials want to hear is that they have another responsibility. However, the Control of Horses Act 1996 and all the legislation on animals must be immediately reviewed, amended to be fit for purpose and codified. That is very important. We must also recognise the interaction and intervention of various animal charities. They also have played a big role and things would be even worse without them. We must compliment them for their active intervention at various times in the last several years.
Deputy Cahill is right. Microchipping may be mandatory now but that is more honoured in the breach than the observance. I do not want to trespass onto any recent developments but one can see that the Department is concerned with various issues related to the food chain. There is always a danger of horses entering the food chain illegally. Full traceability is essential. We have it for other animals. I accept that it is not easy to implement with large animals which live a lot longer and have different breeds. I understand that. I do not say this will be easy. I refer also to the registration of holdings and things like that. The same level of scrutiny does not appear to be applied to horses in that regard. There are little things we can do. There is recognition in the Greyhound Racing Act 2019 of the important role of rehoming. It is recognised in statute. Members will remember that the Minister had to go back and rejig it. The same thing must be done with horses.
There is only a two-liner on this in the greyhound legislation. The same thing has to happen in regard to horses as it is important in the longer term. Many activities occur outside the farm or in a non-farm environment - on the side of the road rather than inside a farm gate. That is a big difference and a challenge.
The bodies and associations involved with rehoming should be recognised in any future legislation and should get appropriate recompense to ensure they deal with that. Rehoming of horses is well down the food chain in comparison with greyhounds, on which we have heard presentations in the committee, whereas we have never heard from anyone in regard to the rehoming of horses. The departmental officials might say we should not have to do that, and they would be right in a utopian or theoretical society. We are where we are, however, and we have to deal with that.
Education is extremely important. Education in secondary schools should be widened. We are talking about the curriculum being changed at junior certificate level to deal with climate change as a subject over 30 or 40 hours, which is important. However, the welfare of animals is another important area, and it includes all animals. Not everybody is going to study agricultural science. This is also important for those who are non-farmers. Generally, we all started agricultural science because we had an interest in farming and had perhaps come from some sort of farming background. However, this is important and should be progressed. Young people take up causes now, as we can see, and I believe it is important to do this. I know there are significant costs involved and that has to be dealt with.
The Department referred to the Irish Harness Racing Association's activities and it recognises the association in its presentation, but that is as far as it goes. It does damn all else, notwithstanding the urging and prompting from this committee. The association receives no annual funding, although it has made numerous presentations, including one a few days ago. The Department seems to regard organisations like this as poor relations when they are doing their best to contribute. The Department knows the areas in which this association is working, yet it receives no annual funding. Various items of legislation have excluded the association, and I know all about the allocation of funds under the greyhound legislation and the various other Acts we have passed in these Houses. We devote between €83 million and €84 million to dogs and horses, with something like €16 million of that specifically for dogs. Surely to God we could give €1 million, €1.5 million or even €2 million to the members of that association. Their role is important and, to be fair, Mr. Blake and Mr. Murphy have recognised this. However, we have basically excluded them. On the basis of equity, and to recognise the good they are doing, which is clearly recognised in the Department's contribution, surely they deserve some annual subvention or grant. I believe this would repay itself one hundredfold.
I know about the Traveller programme in Longford and the work that is going on in that regard, and I know about the race programme, which are all excellent initiatives and very positive offshoots. I want to recognise all the good things. I want to make suggestions in a constructive way because it is easy to come in and condemn. There may be a number of ways in which we can break through in this area. The problem is a huge number of stakeholders and groups are involved and, as a first port of call, we depend upon the local authorities to solve this problem, very often alone. That is not going to work. It needs a cross-agency and stakeholder process, and it needs somebody to lead that and to take responsibility.
Deputy Cahill is correct that any time one contacts local authorities, the Garda or other agencies, they react very well, but it is a firefighting operation and is reactive, rather than being proactive. We need an agency that is in control. It is no use setting up talking shops. Unless we give adequate financial resources to those agencies, we will be back here in five or seven years' time talking about the very same thing, although I will not be here. I thank the witnesses for their contribution, which was very worthwhile and very informative.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. One of the things that always strikes me in regard to the equine industry is that we always have people from Horse Racing Ireland and various sectors coming into the committee and we are usually talking about big prize money, very valuable animals and so on. Yet, at the other end of the scale, we have this situation which is causing huge problems. In every country, and in some it is a little worse than in others, there are situations where horses are being abandoned and there is very poor animal welfare. Those issues need to be dealt with in the context of an industry which we always talk about in terms of value and the great resource it is for the economy but in which we find this dirty backyard that nobody wants to look at or clean up.
There has to be responsibility for this across the board. The variance in economic value that was mentioned from one end down to the other is really what is at stake here. Deputy Cahill referred to traceability. There seems to be practically no traceability in the vast majority of such situations. There is tagging and full traceability in cattle farming, for example, and we nearly know the DNA of the animals. If, however, a horse jumps in front of the car and causes an accident, as was mentioned earlier and which has happened on numerous occasions, nobody is accountable. That is one of the very serious parts of all of this. The Control of Horses Act has to be dealt with and it needs urgent reform. This needs to happen as quickly as possible and we need to try to make progress in that regard.
As for the various agencies that are doing work in this area, the local authorities in particular are very stressed. I know from talking to the veterinary officers in a couple of counties that the question as to where the resources to deal with this situation will come from is an ongoing problem. There are never enough resources. We have had recent incidents in various parts of the country in regard to the risk of inappropriate horsemeat getting into the food chain. Horsemeat is appropriate in some cases, and is being managed and is going into the food chain, correctly so, although we do not have a tradition in Ireland of eating horsemeat and it is for export. The problem is there are shenanigans going on and this really needs to be looked at closely. It is clearly open to such abuses because there is no traceability, which is the core of the problem. While there is no traceability, it will remain a huge problem.
There is a traditional horse fair in Mohill, County Leitrim, where there is bartering on the street corners and people buy and sell horses, and that has been the tradition. When the marts came into being in the late 1960s and early 1970s, everything changed and it forced traceability and put things into a different place. Something will have to be done in regard to how horses are traded and moved, particularly in regard to the traceability issue. This is the key issue we have to get right. No one should own a horse unless it is clearly traceable, has its passport and is microchipped. It is an enforcement issue. Rather than putting the energy into trying to clean up the mess, more energy should go into finding the problem before it becomes an even bigger problem and then trying to deal with it.
The issue raised in regard to dogs is a similar one. Approximately half of the dogs in the country are licensed, or perhaps less than half. That is clearly the problem. We then have issues of sheep being killed in various places and nobody knows who owns the dogs. I have come across a cross-Border problem that affects County Louth in particular.
We talk about Mr. Trump wanting to build a wall on the border; some sheep owners would like to see a good fence going up because they do not know where the dogs are coming from that are killing their sheep. That is a problem because, as far as I am aware, the existing database is supposed to be an international one but it is only fed into by one jurisdiction. That is another problem. We need an all-Ireland database for both horses and dogs. Work is required in that regard to improve the situation.
The core of the problem is that we have an industry that is worth a lot of money at one extreme and yet has a very big problem at the other extreme. Given the resources available to the industry, it does not make sense that the problem has gone unchecked for so long. There needs to be a diversion of some of the available resources. As Deputy Penrose mentioned, €80 million has been invested in the industry and yet we see this problem. That does not add up. It does not logically make sense that it is happening. There are issues concerning culture and how matters are dealt with, but there is also a sense that somehow or other we can allow bad behaviour under the guise of culture and that is okay. It is not, and that needs to be spelled out. It is just not on. It will take a firm hand to go in there and deal with that but it needs to happen as quickly as possible. Where amendments are needed to the Control of Horses Act and to various other pieces of legislation we must bring them forward as quickly as possible. That said, resources are the biggest issue. If resources are put in place we can deal with much of it very quickly.
I welcome the representatives from the Department and the LGMA. Initially, it is shocking to see the statistics on the number of horses that have been euthanised. Thankfully, it is in decline, but it gives an idea of the extent of the problem. There are problems with all sorts of domesticated animals, but unlike dogs or cats, horses are big and one cannot hide them. That said, I am aware that horses have been kept in houses in the middle of towns. It is not an invisible problem and yet the problem is pervasive throughout the country.
I praise the unsung heroes in the animal welfare organisations, which receive funding from the Department and the local authorities, but it is a fraction of the cost to them of delivering the service. I have seen figures for animal welfare organisations. We have some very good ones in County Mayo. Between veterinary bills, even with a discount, and everything else, they are constantly in debt and they resort to all sorts of fundraising. The work they do is a labour of love but I am sure there is a lot of heartbreak in it. If the State had to do the job they do, it would not be able to afford it. We give the animal welfare organisations some money but the problem does not go away.
It has been explained that many cases come to the attention of the authorities, whether it is the Department or local authorities, in the event of there being a danger to the public but underlying that is the very real issue of animal welfare, which is how the animals are being abused and are not treated right to begin with and then we get to the point of them being euthanised. Dialogue with the organisations is required on how we can go about having a meaningful impact. As Deputy Martin Kenny said, we must focus on preventing it rather than dealing with the end result. I accept that funding is an issue for local authorities because the situation is extensive, but it has also been my experience that many of the horses concerned are on land within the control of local authorities. I am not taking from the difficulty of the issue. We could go down the route of chipping the animals but there is a serious cultural issue around horses and how they are kept, regardless of the environment in which they are being kept. I refer to an urban environment where one might question if there was even room for a dog and yet a horse is being kept there. In addition to the heavy workload of local authorities, there must be more enforcement on local authority property where horses, dogs or other animals are kept. That should include horses grazing in parks that are owned by local authorities. People must understand that it is not acceptable and it will not be tolerated, which comes back to enforcement.
Education is one of the biggest elements in terms of getting to the root of it. Aside from us commenting here on the end result, which is where animal welfare intervention is required when things go wrong, we all know that there is a therapeutic value in horses, culturally, for people of a Traveller background. That is a tradition. However, we must marry the reality of looking after an animal with the entitlement to own an animal. There would be a great benefit in involving secondary schools or targeting young people in urban areas who keep horses. A limited number of horses could be held in an area and people could be supervised while looking after them. The young people could be taught animal husbandry and the implications rather than what happens at present because it is like cowboys and Indians at times. It is not acceptable.
In Mayo where I come from there is a horse sanctuary, the North Mayo Horse Sanctuary, which is run by a former councillor, Gerry Ginty, who is very dedicated to horses. He would give his right arm for them. He expends a lot of resources. He has a good team around him. The group rescues horses all the time and it tries to get land to feed them and to look after them. Euthanising them is a last resort. I would welcome an education programme, in particular for Traveller children or young people, which would allow them to direct their energies towards looking after animals without having an animal on a green area or on a football pitch, as Deputy Cahill outlined. People have to coexist and there are certain realities not being expressed in the conversation about what coexistence means and respecting other cultures. It might be worthwhile to have a pilot project with someone like Mr. Ginty who runs a sanctuary to see if some reason can be brought to bear. One would not be entirely excluding access but it would be limited and the rules would be set out for how it would work. Can one imagine living beside the nuisance that is caused? It is crazy that the animals are being treated in the way they are. Animals should not be treated that way. We could be doing more but we need more dialogue. I do not take from the work that is done or the resources that are provided but it is a serious issue that needs to be addressed in a more holistic way than just throwing money at animal welfare organisations that are not fit to cope with the volume of work being done. I acknowledge the work done by the Department and the councils. In my area the dog warden gets involved. The work comes under the general heading of animal welfare and everybody gets involved. Something more needs to be done and it must get to the core of the issue, which is the people who own the horses whom we cannot trace but we all know about.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I am sorry that I was delayed in the Seanad. I wish to focus on a couple of points. Reference was made to carrying out independent research. I can identify with that in the sense that there is much anecdotal information and there needs to be a comprehensive research report not just into the symptoms but the causes leading to the situation where so many healthy horses are put down. Reference was made to "supplying the food chain, an activity which is now highly regulated". Could Mr. McGrath please expand on that for me?
I too commend the work of the voluntary organisations, in particular the former Mayo county councillor, Gerry Ginty, who has done an enormous amount of work involving the care of horses. He is well recognised for it. He is no longer a councillor as he did not run in the recent local election but that was one of his key areas of work.
Research is needed because as well as thinking outside the box about horses, it could be combined with the research that has already been done on the value of equine-assisted activities and therapies for children and young adults with autism. There is already some research that shows the value of such activities and we need to add to that. If we were to use this research and target the resources properly, we could put many of those healthy horses to use in social enterprises. It has been proven that working with horses can help to improve not only the physical make-up of young people with autism but their communication skills and behaviour as well. Perhaps the witnesses could tell me who needs to instruct that research.
What are the mandatory holding periods in secure pounds at the moment? It was said that a task force for rigorous enforcement was being set up between local authorities, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Garda. Whose responsibility or duty would it be to set that up and to make a similar task force workable in the local authorities? At the end of the day, much of the responsibility is left with the local authorities. It is not only a matter of resources, although more resources are needed, because until we get that piece of research, we will not know exactly where the resources need to be deployed and we will be unable to quantify the resources needed by each local authority. There are also inconsistencies between what different local authorities would demand. Having one veterinarian in each local authority does not seem to be sufficient for the job that needs to be done here.
I welcome the opportunity for this presentation. We need to find out who is responsible for implementing this research and how it will be done. We also need to enable the local authorities rather than simply heaping the problem on them. The key requirement is to look outside the box and further afield because otherwise we will be having the same conversation about horses in ten, 15 or 20 years' time. We could potentially use the rural environmental protection scheme, REPS, or the mechanisms of the next Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, when it is negotiated, in a way that leads to better preservation of horses. We should also look at how we can better utilise our native horse breed, perhaps in the tourism sector.
I join fellow committee members in thanking the Department and local government officials for attending to discuss this issue. Much more work is needed to achieve more co-ordination and resources to ensure this issue is better addressed. Today's meeting is useful in that we can look at the gaps and outstanding issues. My colleagues have covered many of the issues but I have a slightly tangential question on the change in stocking criteria for areas of natural constraint, which was introduced in the past year. I am particularly interested in the change in the categorisation of donkeys, although I accept that today's discussion is primarily focused on horses. However, given that many of the witnesses come from an animal welfare background, I would like to use this opportunity to ask them to elaborate further on that change. People do not see merit in it because donkeys are kept well. A welfare rationale was given for that particular decision. I have tabled parliamentary questions on the issue but we have not had an opportunity to tease it out. I would appreciate, therefore, if the witnesses could flesh out the background to the change and indicate whether it was necessary because a number of farmers do not see the rationale behind it.
It is good to have this presentation and I am glad we are discussing this issue. I pay tribute to the voluntary groups that do tremendous work on the welfare of animals. I cannot understand how people can abandon horses and leave them to starve and die. It is shocking and should not be tolerated anywhere.
Senator Conway-Walsh referred to programmes for children with special needs. That is an area with great potential for development. Animals could be moved to local authority land and looked after under some sort of employment scheme, and people could visit and spend time with them. Interaction with animals is very good for children, particularly those with disabilities. I would like to see such a project developed in local authorities because they have parcels of land close to towns and villages that will not be used for housing. Perhaps it could be a pilot scheme. This would be good for men, women, children and animals.
Mr. Martin Blake:
As the Chairman said, many questions were asked, some of them several times. I will start at the beginning with Deputy Cahill's question, which was raised again subsequently, on the security of the food chain. We all recall the contamination of beef with horsemeat back in 2013. At that time, we undertook a significant review of the controls used for how horses are traced, identified and checked into the food chain. We now have enhanced controls in place. Since then, we have also established a central database in which any animal presented for slaughter must be registered. Food business operators must cross-check animals on the database. They must also cross-check passports for their authenticity if they have any suspicions about them and check the entries regarding prohibition for slaughter as well. That is verified by our Department inspectors and we also check the identification. We can cross-check any passport we have a concern about with the passport-issuing agencies. More recently, we have started harvesting microchips post-slaughter in order to cross-check them. There is, therefore, a robust check for animals going in for slaughter at this point. We are always seeking to make incremental enhancements and we apply additional controls when we find a particular issue of concern.
On the numbers of horses being microchipped, we estimate that between 20,000 and 25,000 foals are born in Ireland every year and that we have a horse population of approximately 250,000. Data from the past couple of years suggest that the numbers of young foals microchipped, identified and registered stood at 17,800 in 2016, 18,600 in 2017 and 19,900 in 2018. While we cannot be sure there is 100% compliance with the practice of microchipping foals as they are born, and we acknowledge that is unlikely, we are satisfied that the level of compliance is significant and increasing.
We note the point about State agencies and lands and it is something we reflect on. It is true that we are unable to identify who is responsible for abandoned horses if they are not microchipped.
I ask Mr. Murphy to update the committee on our positioning with regard to the Control of Horses Act 1996.
Mr. Dermot Murphy:
We have been examining this legislation. Overall, it has served the country well. As Deputy Penrose recalled, we had a major issue in 1996 with the dangers posed by horses in green areas. The Control of Horses Act 1996 has worked well in controlling what were very dangerous situations. Other developments at European level have impinged upon the Act. As the chief veterinary officer stated, we are much more advanced now, with identification and microchipping, than in 2009. Those controls are being strengthened all the time. Certain elements of the Act could be reviewed, such as licensing and similar aspects. Other elements of the Act are, however, still relevant to what can be done by local authorities regarding exclusion areas. They can be very beneficial.
We will certainly continue to work with representatives of the Local Government Management Agency, LGMA, some of whom are present, to refine the concept of what a new Bill might look like. That said, I would not want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The Act has worked well in providing greater security in green areas over the years. There have been fewer accidents and the local authorities have been better able to interact with contractors to seize horses. Critically, the situation is improving. There have been many more possibilities to rehome horses on the Continent in recent years. While seizures are falling the proportion of horses being rehomed, and indeed being returned to their owners, has been increasing. That has been a welcome development recently. We will continue to look at the elements of the Act that might be improved upon but it has served the country well over the last 23 years.
Mr. Martin Blake:
Deputy Penrose referred to rehoming and, in particular, education. As Mr Murphy indicated, we are tracking the level of rehoming. In 2018, 1,460 horses were seized under the Control of Horses Act 1996. Some 271 of those were rehomed and 133 were returned to their owners. That is a growing industry. It does not deal with the issue in its entirety, but it is an area we are working on and supporting. I mentioned education in my introduction as one of the issues highlighted to us in our consultation on the animal welfare strategy. That is not to say that we are not already involved in elements of education. We have several projects ongoing with welfare organisations and local authorities in Leitrim, Longford, Offaly, Sligo and Mayo. We are seeking to fund a number of education projects and riding welfare classes nationally.
We have provided funding for the online training programme provided by the Irish Horse Welfare Trust, IHWT, as part of those education courses. Funding has also been provided to the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, ISPCA, to allow it to provide training days with the Laois Traveller Action Group. The Department also continues to support programmes such as the Moyross equine education and therapy programme and Cherry Orchard Equine Centre. We are also funding two research projects through Pavee Point. The findings of the most recent project were published this week. In the context of our engagement with the local authority in Longford, we are working with it to find a facility for use by traveller families close to the town. The Department has also supported the provision of fencing to a project in north Meath. I understand that insurance issues have arisen but that is being progressed. In Sligo, a site has been selected and arrangements are being made through the local council for the provision of a number of stables. There are also projects in Carrick-on-Shannon and Kilkenny. The Department has, therefore, been working on the issue of urban horses and has sought to support and education.
Deputy Penrose also mentioned the Irish Harness Racing Association. The Department continues to work with that association in providing training under its auspices and with its support. We are funding that training for trotters and people who might be sulky racing on roads.
Deputy Martin Kenny raised issues concerning the variance in the value of horses. That is something we understand and acknowledge. We also note the points made concerning how funding is apportioned and that is something we can reflect upon. On the issue of the identification of horses, I gave some information regarding the level of microchipping and registration that is occurring. That is approaching nearly 90% of what we expect it to be. That has grown incrementally over the years. It is not where we want it to be yet but it is improving.
Turning to the database, I mentioned it in the context of dogs and horses. We have our own national database for horses, while a number of registration bodies have their own databases for dogs that can be interrogated by local authorities, ourselves or veterinary practitioners to investigate rehoming.
Senator Mulherin raised the issue of education. I hope I have addressed that point in the context of engaging with young people and Travellers. We have been trying to do that and we continue to want to do. It will feature strongly in our animal welfare strategy to be published later in the year.
Senator Conway-Walsh referred to research, which I mentioned in my comments on our animal welfare strategy. Research is one plank we have identified as something in which we need to continue to invest. We have already invested in some research projects, such as the project I mentioned in respect of Pavee Point. We have also invested in research on the welfare other animal species. We will be able to deal with research needs and the Department will take the lead in identifying research needs regarding any welfare issue affecting any animal species. I mentioned the "One Welfare" concept earlier. That also feeds into the issues mentioned regarding the well-being of people, the welfare of animals and the interconnectedness of those elements. We have recognised this issue and it will be featuring in our animal welfare strategy. We do recognise the benefits that animals bring to people and people bring to animals.
Mr. Martin Blake:
When I was replying to Deputy Cahill's question earlier, I explained the series of incremental changes we have made to the checks on the food chain over the past five or six years. We have a robust check on all animals entering the food chain. Only 6,000 to 7,000 animals are slaughtered each year. This happens at two plants so it is easy for us to check. We have a full-time presence in those two abattoirs. If we find something wrong then that animal is rejected. For example, if we find two microchips in an animal post slaughter, the carcase is rejected.
Mr. Martin Blake:
No. All of the product is exported. I will mention one other aspect regarding the rural development programme. It was mentioned that the programme would be looked at in the future. Even in the context of this current rural development programme, we have a knowledge transfer programme for the equal industry as well. One does exist for horse owners. That has been funded and is in place.
Looking at this in future, even in the context of this rural development programme, we have a knowledge transfer programme for the equine industry as well, for horse owners, which has been funded and is in place.
Mr. Dermot Murphy:
On Deputy McConalogue's point on the donkeys, there was a stakeholder consultation and as part of that there was some feedback and suggestion that non-farmers and people one would not usually associate with farming were using donkeys for the purposes of the livestock unit requirement. There was also suggestion the donkeys were being brought in from England. It was in that overall context that that review was taking place. We work closely with The Donkey Sanctuary and are conscious of the implications of this change from a welfare point of view. We are meeting The Donkey Sanctuary on Friday next, and with Mr. Joe Collins MRCVS, to discuss possible implications. Issues were raised in the whole examination of the areas of natural constraint, ANC, on how it and the compensatory payments were being operated. This relates to that suggestion of the use of donkeys by non-farmers, that is people who had land but would not normally be associated with farming.
Mr. Paddy Mahon:
Deputy Cahill asked if resources were adequate to deal with this problem. In our view they are not adequate to deal with the overall problem. Our opening statement pointed out that we do not have sufficient professional and technical resources to deal with the increasing number of incidents of horse welfare issues.
On purely financial resources, in figures I mentioned earlier, it is costing between €500 and €1,000 per horse. We recoup some but not all of that from the Department. From a resource point of view we have to supplement this from our own resources through ratepayers etc. Ideally we would like full recoupment for these costs.
There is a new procurement framework in place and we should see some efficiencies there. This is an ongoing issue for local authorities in trying to match resources with expenditure in all our areas and control of horses is a very significant one in some of our local authorities.
On that matter, are there specific criteria that local authorities use when this issue arises? Where do they get their funds from within their resources? Are they taken out of "X" or "Y" department to look after this matter or is it up to each individual local authority to do their own thing in that regard?
Mr. Joe Boland:
There was a time in the past where 100% funding was recouped and that is no longer the case. Local authorities will now make a general provision for the element they have to fund themselves and it will not relate to any specific department like housing, for example. It would usually come under programme, group 8 category, as used to be the case, and would be a general provision rather than taking money from a particular department.
Mr. Paddy Mahon:
The best use of available resources should be a partnership or taskforce, on occasions, between the local authority ideally with support from the Department and the Garda, not essentially in every local authority but in some where it is required. The local authority sector does have equivalent taskforces in the area of waste enforcement and areas where dog wardens need to work in partnership with An Garda Síochána. We have and are developing protocols in those areas. This is worth exploring. As mentioned in our statement we are very open to exploring how a service level agreement, SLA, can be developed between ourselves and the Department similar to what is in place with one of the animal welfare bodies. This sector is very open to such an arrangement. This is about how best to apply resources that are scarce. I will ask Mr. Boland to deal with research.
Mr. Joe Boland:
On the research issue, I am aware that Senator Conway-Walsh is very strong on this issue and I agree wholeheartedly with her. The local authority sector has been looking for this for quite some time. It will be gleaned from the conversation today that there are significant costs involved. All of these are reactive. We are reacting to a problem and are never sufficiently focused on the cause of the problem in the first instance. What is the cause? Is it solely down to cultural issues or are there other factors involved? Does this relate to a culture of carelessness or indiscriminate breeding? Does it relate to issues of supply to the food chain, as suggested by Deputy Cahill? Are there issues relating to adverse possession of lands? Are there other issues or ones of criminality involved? Are horses being kept simply as an attack on authority? There are many aspects to this. The local authority sector would welcome independent academic research on this and again I agree wholeheartedly with many of the comments made here. I commend the work of this committee and this is one action that it should consider very carefully.
As far as local authorities are concerned we would be happy to contribute to the costs, but as several members of the committee have said, we do not want to be back here in ten years time talking about this again. The problem would appear to have abated somewhat but is certainly not gone away by any by any manner or means.
Can I make a suggestion on that? Could a collective local authority submission be made to the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, to have a measure within GLAS, that would in some way address part of the issue we are trying to deal with here that could be considered at European level? I am sure that this problem is not solely confined to Ireland. A collective local authority submission might have some impact on CAP and maybe if this might be considered by the Local Authority Members Association, LAMA.
Mr. Garrett Shine:
I will deal with a number of technical questions. By way of explanation as a veterinary officer, I am at the coalface dealing with the dogs and the horses for my sins.
Senator Conway-Walsh asked about the holding period for horses. It is quite unusual that while we have a principal Act, it defers to individual by-laws when it comes to the actual holding or detention period. That can vary, technically, from county to county which is probably not ideal. In our submission for the review of the Act we would like to see the holding period brought back into the principal Act so that there is a common holding period countrywide. This would make it more workable.
Mr. Garrett Shine:
Yes, but sometimes it can vary. In our by-laws in County Louth, if after five days the owner is known, one has to serve a second notice to give another five days. No authority would be fewer than five days and it would be rare to have it longer than ten. The average would be between five and ten days as the holding period.
Mr. Garrett Shine:
It is fairly standard.
Many members asked about the microchipping and horses and I know dogs were mentioned. From my experience, the mandatory microchipping of dogs has come a long way. It has been very positive and I know from our pound that we are practically reaching a 50:50 state where about 50% of dogs coming in are properly microchipped and that has been excellent because the amount of reclaims, as in dogs we are reuniting with the owners, has gone up dramatically. If the annual statistics are read each year, it will be seen that the reclaims of dogs, that is, dogs going back to their owners, is rising all the time, and that is down to the microchipping. It is highly beneficial and very good.
The flip side is that, while the overall amount of horses microchipped in the country might be about 90%, unfortunately, the vast majority of the horses we see in our pounds that have been seized under the Control of Horses Act 1996 are not properly microchipped. It is exceptionally rare to have a seized horse in that is properly microchipped with a passport and the details of that microchip which give the current owner. We are seeing that to be incredibly rare. It may be the genre of horses we are coming across and seizing but if there is a gap in microchipping, that is exactly where it is. I agree that if that could be targeted it would be beneficial because we could get to the root of the problem before it creates difficulty.
Questions were asked about the legislation and how strong it is and dogs were mentioned as well. The Control of Dogs Act 1986 is old legislation and I know the Department responsible for that is the Department of Rural and Community Development. It will be reviewed over the summer but it is working quite well. Deputy Cahill asked about coursing and what can be done and there are provisions in the Control of Dogs Act 1986 that can deal with that. I accept that if it happens out of hours-----
Mr. Garrett Shine:
Yes, that can be a problem. Sometimes they will bring them somewhere. The position of Louth County Council is that the horse legislation needs to be reviewed and that is probably urgent, especially with recent High Court cases and so on. It urgently needs to be reviewed to help us do our job.
I wish to put my apologies to the witnesses on the record. I had a brief meeting at 4 p.m. that turned out to be not so brief and as I was coming back we were called to a vote in the Seanad. I will not go over what has probably been raised already. I will read the transcript and if there is anything that is not in there that I would like to know about, I will send the witnesses an email on it. I will not waste the time of the committee by going over what has most likely been raised earlier.
I want to go back to microchipping. For me, this is at the hub of the issue. Mr. Shine answered a question there and he said that the vast majority of the horses that are impounded have no microchip. He said he was happy enough and I took a rough calculation of the figures he mentioned for registration as regards the number of foals that are born every year and I reckon that only 80% to 85% are being microchipped. Therefore, we have roughly 15% of each year's horse population that is not being microchipped and that is the 15% from where all our problems are coming. If there is irregular movement of horses out of the country, it is happening out of that 15%. Mr. Shine was talking about the database and all the rest but we have an incomplete database when we have that level of non-participation.
Cross-compliance obviously forces other herdowners to comply with registration but do we have any stick we can use to force owners of mares to microchip a foal when it is born? I know the resources to go around and inspect this would be colossal but is there any weapon in our armoury that we can use to try to move to 100% compliance? If we had 100% compliance, we would be an awful long way down the road of solving both our cruelty problems and our neglect problems. In a case of trespassing, for example, if the animal is traceable back to an owner, it would greatly increase the onus on the owners to look after the animals. To me, the hub of the issue is microchipping. While Mr. Shine has said that we have come a long way from where we were, we are still a long way from a complete database and I could not have confidence in a system such as that.
If we go back and compare this to the situation with bovines, we would be laughed out of every market in the world if we only had 85% compliance in that sector, or in the sheep sector or any other agriculture sector for that matter. Horses are legally entering the food chain as well, that is a reality. Unless we have plans to increase the percentage of the horse population that is being microchipped, as Deputy Penrose said, we will be back here in five or seven years' time with the same problems.
I was going to make a similar point on the small amount of the sector that are not microchipped. When we talk about horses are we covering horses, ponies, donkeys and everything in the equine sector? I imagine that the high end is looked after, which is probably 50% or more, and it is that other sector that is not being taken care of. In some cases, as has been mentioned earlier, we come across semi-retired farmers who have a small bit of land and in order to keep their areas of natural constraint, ANC, payment, they have a couple of assess on the land. I know them and I met a man last week in his 80s who does that. There is nothing wrong with that and it is not trying to pull the wool over people's eyes in any way. It is tiny and it is very much a by-issue. The point is that in some of those cases, microchipping and all of that may not be dealt with as appropriately as it should be.
We also have a range of people such as the sulky racers and all of that sector. I imagine that a similar range of people are involved. The focus needs to go towards that end and that comes back to the point Deputy Penrose made on the Irish Harness Racing Association. While I acknowledge some assistance was given to the association, its members are telling us that they are meeting a stone wall with their big asks. All of us have met its members and they tell us they are finding it difficult to overcome that. Were adequate resources given to that sector, it would resolve a fair part of the problem, because it would create a regulated industry where those types of horses and ponies would have a way forward. The sector would know what it was doing, it would be regulated and matters would be better looked after.
That is one of the key matters we should be looking to resolve. We should see if the Irish Harness Racing Association can get on a proper footing in Ireland. It is a huge industry in France and in other countries and yet, we are dragging behind here. It is not appropriate that we say we have this problem and yet we have part of the solution and we are ignoring it. That solution needs to be dealt with more appropriately and that seems to be coming up all of the time. They tell us that, they have come in and met committee members and they have lobbied us many times on this issue. They have been at this for a couple of years and they do not seem to be getting any traction. I appeal to the Department in particular to sit down with them and come up with a solution to their problems because solving their problems would solve a big part of this other problem as well.
Following on from what Deputy Martin Kenny said about semi-retired farmers having a couple of assess that technically speaking, are illegal, in order to draw down a payment, if one had a bovine animal that was not registered, I am sure it would not be possible to draw down a payment. It must be possible to register an equine animal, be it a horse, a pony or whatever else, in order to draw down a payment?
Mr. Dermot Murphy:
If they are applying they will have passports. The suggestion has been that the system might have been used a bit by people who are not normally associated with farming, and that was what was coming up in the stakeholder review that I mentioned earlier to Deputy McConalogue. There would be a passport, therefore.
There was also the suggestion that some animals were being brought in from England to benefit. In these cases there would not be any other livestock units on the farm and so on. That was all thrashed out in the stakeholder review that took place but there would be a requirement to have a passport and to be microchipped since 2009 under EU law and Irish law.
Mr. Martin Blake:
I will respond to Deputy Cahill in the context of our approach of trying to encourage and improve identification. Part and parcel of our original office grouping involves checking for identification on an ongoing basis. We have looked at the incremental increase over the years as a response to that engagement. We have registered 25,000 premises where horses are kept. Two years ago we did not have that number. Essentially, we know there are 25,000 premises where horses are kept. There are only a handful of horses on most premises. We also have large herds of horses. That has become a feature of recent years. We have checked some of these large horse holdings and some of the large horse dealers to ensure they are compliant. We have set up checks at some of the fairs with the help of the Garda in some cases. In some cases, the Garda has advised us not to undertake checks. We have undertaken checks at some of the fairs where some of the horses about which we have concerns might be traded. We have had multi-agency engagement at Banagher fair. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, the Garda and ourselves have checked on participants for animal identification and other issues. There is an element of engagement across agencies. Perhaps we need to do more of that in the context of the holistic issue that is presenting to us.
Mr. Martin Blake:
Enforcement comes from ensuring people comply with the law. When we get to a stage where the vast majority of people are compliant, then we can devote resources to taking people through the courts. Where we are dealing with 50% of clients not in compliance, we work on trying to get more and more people compliant. The ability is in place to take people to court on identification and welfare issues. We have prosecuted several cases under the new Act on horse welfare grounds since 2013.
Would it be fair to say that the same individuals who represent a difficulty today represented a difficulty five or ten years ago? Are these the same people who will cause difficulty in five or ten years?
It is well-known who these people are. It seems there are no other questions. This has been an interesting discussion. Obviously, several issues need to be addressed, including resource issues. Some of the arrangements being developed by the Department may be helpful. Deputy Cahill wants to bring this issue to the agenda of this committee. Next week we will discuss exactly what course of action we need to take from here on.
It has been an interesting discussion. My thanks to Mr. Blake, Mr. Murphy, Mr. Boland, Mr. Mahon and Mr. Shine. This is an ongoing discussion that will be part of our committee work in the coming period.
We will have the launch of our report at 1 p.m. before our next meeting.