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July 1 2004


Horse owners have been told they have eight months to ensure their animal has a passport as the controversial equine passport regulations finally became law yesterday. While equine owners are now technically in breach of the law if they do not hold a passport for their horse, pony or donkey, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has relaxed enforcement until February 28 next year. After that date, anyone who has not got a passport for their animal will potentially face a 5,000 fine.

The penalty for issuing false passports, failing to fill in details of medication correctly, or consigning a horse not intended for human consumption to an abattoir, could end up in prison.

Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael admitted last month that there was a huge backlog in processing the applications - and that many owners had not yet applied.

The department has so far just 179,000 passports, out of a horse population believed to be between 600,000 and 900,000, and there are 37,000 applications waiting to be dealt with.

A Defra spokesman said: "Our approach to enforcement is to encourage compliance to obtain a passport and we have provided a breathing space for this. Therefore, while it is an offence under the regulations not to comply with the time limits for applying for a passport, we expect a light enforcement regime between now and February 28, 2005. That is the date from which restrictions on the use of horses without passports apply."

Since Defra first announced the introduction of passports to bring the UK into line with the EU in the autumn of 2002, it has conducted several consultations with equine charities and bodies.

Ministers bowed to pressure from the International League for the Protection of Horses to scrub out the requirement on owners to decide whether the horse will go for slaughter for meat when first applying for the passport.

The charity argued that softhearted pony owners would opt to tick the box against the slaughter of their animal when it was young, but that this would mean that the final owner of the horse would not be able to have a horse humanely put down in a UK abattoir close to home, which might be the only option they could afford.

If the option was not there, the charity warned, the owners might dump the animals - or sell to unscrupulous dealers intent on exporting them.

Tony Tyler, the ILPH's director of UK Operations, said: "By leaving it blank it will help ensure horses do not end up suffering because their final owner cannot afford to pay to have the horse put down.

"It gives the final owner the choice of sending it to a UK abattoir which will help ensure they stay open and prevent the live export trade beginning again."

The ILPH welcomed the move as part of the campaign it has been waging with the WMN to prevent a resurgence in a trade of live horses, donkeys and ponies to the Continent.

There is currently no legal backing in EU law for the British regulations, called "minimum values", which are enforced at UK ports, preventing low value horses, donkeys and ponies from being exported.

While a trade does currently not exist, except perhaps illicitly via Ireland, the charity is concerned that there could be a resurgence - particularly if the few remaining UK abattoirs which accept equines for slaughter closed because of a lack of demand fuelled by the passport restrictions.