Seanad debates

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

2:30 pm

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I just had a chat with the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, because the issue that I am raising as regards horses relates to hippotherapy and the benefits of horses for children, in particular mentally handicapped children and juvenile delinquents. Occupational therapists, physical therapists and every other type of therapist is using hippotherapy. It is new in Ireland, with only one centre located in Cork providing it. As the Minister of State knows, people who work in this field have seen the benefit for children. The horses are not trained, but the children are taking riding lessons or being around them while they are working. We all know of "The Horse Whisperer".

I know someone in Mayo who homes horses and, getting no help from the State to do so, is crying out for assistance.For the past ten or 15 years, he has used almost all of his wages - he obviously has to live on something - on housing about 20 stray horses that were picked up.

I have a number of questions I want the Minister of State to answer regarding the welfare of those horses, taking into consideration how we treat our prize horses and how we treat less able horses. There is a great horse project in Tallaght, the Fettercairn horse project, but nothing down the country. I do not want to mention this person's name, as we are not allowed to mention names, but he has highlighted some issues to me regarding his work. He picks up wandering horses and he has told me that such horses are put down even when they are in foal. I understand there are situations where a wandering horse regrettably has to be put down for its own benefit, but I cannot see why we could not treat a horse in foal differently. He has brought that to my attention and I believe strongly that a country that prizes its horses should prize the horse in foal and not put it down. There should be a different rule there. If somebody is willing to care for that horse, as this man is, they should get help to do so.

I am aware that sanctuaries pick up unchipped horses weekly. We have a regulation on chipping horses, but obviously it is not being enforced. He has many horses that were found without chips. Why is the regulation not being enforced? What can the Minister of State do? First, he can clarify whose job it is to go out and find the unchipped horses. The regulation is not being enforced. It is there and it should be enforced. I would appreciate him strengthening that provision and outlining the position to me.

There is also an issue with the sale of horses to under age people. It is almost like getting a dog now - people get a horse for Christmas sometimes and when they find out the horse is too expensive or they cannot keep it, it is let loose. I know horse licences are granted only to those over the age of 16, but I have been informed by this man in Mayo that this is not being enforced. The chipping and the sale of horses to under age people are two issues I want to bring to the Minister of State's attention.

The Irish horse industry contributes over €708 million per annum to the economy and 270,000 people come to see those horses in national country shows. When we look at the people who are working with what one could call underprivileged horses, and helping handicapped children and juvenile delinquents as well, the effect it has in bringing them back to normality is fantastic. There is a stark contrast between the horse racing industry and the help we give people trying to do educational work with horses. It is non-existent, other than South Dublin County Council's Fettercairn horse project, which is worth a visit from any Minister. It is also important to mention the health and physical benefits. As far as I know, there is only one trained hippotherapist, in Ballincollig - Strides Occupational Therapy - but this person in Mayo is also doing fantastic work and I would like even a pilot project to be set up with this individual to try to support this form of therapy. He has to feed, home, house and build shelters for them, and all from his own pocket. He is doing it for about 20 horses annually and then passing them on to people who want horses or to mind them. It is like an orphanage for horses.

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Cáit Keane for raising this very important issue. As the House will be aware, my Department has significant responsibilities and functions in relation to animal welfare, including the welfare of horses. These responsibilities stem from the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013, which I introduced in 2013 in order to provide an up to date and modernised system for enforcement of animal welfare. The Act is significant in a number of respects. First, it makes much clearer the responsibility placed on animal owners to actively care for their animals through the provision of food, water, shelter and veterinary care. Further, the enforcement has been enhanced by a variety of measures, such as greater flexibility on how inspectors may be authorised and operate. I have been asked from time to time to introduce more severe penalties for breaches of animal welfare legislation.

The reality is that the penalties provided in the Act are already quite severe and are the maximum allowable under the Irish legal system. Summary convictions can bring fines of €5,000 and six months in jail. Conviction upon indictment can lead to fines of €250,000 and up to five years in prison. Furthermore, the Act gives a Minister greater power to authorise people such as members of non-governmental organisations operating in the animal welfare area to act. Officers from the DSPCA and ISPCA have been authorised to act, and this system is working well.

With regard to the welfare of horses, my Department has stressed and continues to stress that it is the responsibility of horse owners to ensure the welfare of horses in their ownership or care and to dispose of them appropriately. My Department, in conjunction with local authorities and the Garda, continues to adopt a proactive approach in regard to horse welfare, will remove at-risk animals and, where appropriate, institute prosecutions regarding the maltreatment of these animals.

Members of the public are encouraged to report any concerns about the welfare of horses or any animals. I assure the House that any complaints will be dealt with. The funding provided by my Department includes a payment to local authorities towards the rehoming costs of each horse seized under the Act. Unfortunately, it is not possible to rehome all equines because of the substantial numbers involved and the costs associated with keeping a horse. Where rehoming is not an option, my Department provides a payment towards the costs associated with disposal of the animals. If Senator Keane has any evidence of pregnant mares being abandoned by local authorities, she should provide details to my Department in order that efforts to rehome such animals can be pursued, something I assure her will happen.

My Department also provides considerable funding to animal welfare organisations in order to assist them in carrying out their very important functions in promoting the welfare of animals. In December 2015, I provided funding of €2.4 million to 140 welfare organisations throughout the country, many of which are involved in horse welfare, in order to assist them in activities. I am satisfied that this very generous level of funding should ensure that they have sufficient resources available to cater for any difficulties arising in the area of horse welfare in the coming year.

Some of the recipients of funding are supporting the development of facilities for horse projects targeted at the younger horse owning population. They include modules on a range of practical skills and knowledge on the care of equines. These organisations will also be requested to develop dedicated projects providing for equine castration in order to reduce indiscriminate breeding and improve horse welfare.

The responsibility of the Department in regard to horses is also dispensed through the Control of Horses Act 1996. It was introduced to address the serious problems being caused by straying horses wandering onto public roads and land and posing risks to the public, especially motorists and younger children, and public and private property. Local authorities have responsibility for implementing the Act. Under the legislation, my Department provides assistance to local authorities towards the expenses incurred in the implementation of the Act and, in this regard, almost €953,000 was provided in 2015 to local authorities. This is a significant reduction on previous years, largely due to the fact that the number of horses removed under the Act reduced from 5,000 in 2013 to an estimated 2,000 in 2015.

The substantial reduction in the number of horses removed under the Act reflects a general improvement in the welfare situation of horses in 2015.

My Department is providing significant funding for urban horse projects aimed at making available appropriate facilities for young people to keep horses in an urban setting. In that context, it is currently examining a number of applications from local authorities.

My Department is in the process of completing a review of the Control of Horses Act. This legislation plays an important role in helping to deal with the problem of wandering horses, which have proved to be a hazard both to themselves and others. The problem also gives rise to significant welfare issues. Unfortunately, owners have been careless in some instances or have deliberately allowed horses to wander. The main stakeholders in this area have expressed concerns about certain aspects of how the Act is set out and how it is being enforced. My Department has sought input into this review, from local authorities and Traveller organisations, in particular, as well as from other interested groups. There has been considerable interest in the review and a number of sensible suggestions have been made in respect of improvements to the Act in order to better serve the needs of all stakeholders. Some stakeholders are particularly concerned about a lack of consistency regarding the by-laws introduced by local authorities to deal with wandering horses. In addition, retention and notice periods vary from county to county and this causes confusion both among horse owners who may deal with different rules across county boundaries. It is also the case that where local authorities share facilities in the interests of efficiency, there can be confusion about which rules apply to which horses. Therefore, while acknowledging that there are wider social and long-term issues around horse ownership which present complex challenges in tandem, there is also clear scope to update the legislation in the short term so that the existing situation can be improved. My Department will be addressing this issue in the near future.

I indicated earlier that there is a considerable body of legislation aimed at protecting the welfare of horses. The Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 is very strong and includes severe penalties for breaches of its provisions. I acknowledge that there were far too many incidences of abuse of horses in the recent past, many of which were related to the general oversupply of animals. However, the position in respect of oversupply has been largely corrected and this is reflected in the substantial reduction in the number of horses removed under the Control of Horses Act last year. In general, I am satisfied that there has been a very significant improvement in the overall situation relating to the welfare of horses in recent years. I have provided substantial funds to animal welfare organisations to assist them in dealing with any animal welfare issues that arise. I have also strengthened legislation relating to the identification of horses and this should also help to deal with abuse of horses, in particular by improving the prospects of tracing the persons responsible for the abuse. That is the key to the whole situation being dealt with.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for a very detailed reply. Horses do not know boundaries and cannot indicate who are their owners. That is the problem. If the Minister of State says he is strengthening the position, I will send him, by e-mail, a question on the various organisations to which funding is given, particularly those that provide therapy for horses and that work with juveniles who own horses. I have visited a horse project which is not receiving any funding but which is doing fantastic work. I will revert to the Minister of State on that.

While the figures are going in the right direction, an issue arises in respect of the number of horses removed which could be used in therapy but which are just got rid of. There is a project here and if we put a few bob into it, horses could be put to use rather than got rid of. I will come back to the Minister of State on that point. I thank him for the detailed response.

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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I would be interested in receiving the details about the project in Mayo which the Senator referred to. Regarding the therapy, if there is something that can help children, it should be explored. The issue is to deal with the problem that existed when 5,000 horses were creating hassle for people, both private and public. This number has decreased substantially. We would be very open to any project that could help the animals benefit young people. We might set up a meeting with some of our officials to try to help out with it.