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House of Commons Hansard
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Horse Tethering
20 February 2019
Volume 654

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

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I am delighted to have secured this Adjournment debate on the practice of the long-term tethering of horses. Tethering is the practice of attaching horses to a stake in the ground using a collar, or sometimes just a piece of rope around the neck, that is then fastened to a chain. The animal that once defined our great nation is now being left at risk of neglect, cruelty and abuse because of loopholes in the very legislation that was written to protect it. This debate follows the Break the Chain campaign run by the excellent HorseWorld trust, a leading equine rescue charity in the south-west, just next door to my constituency. The Break the Chain campaign aims to amend the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to include restrictions on the tethering of horses.

Traditionally, tethering has been used as a short-term method of keeping horses, but it has transformed into a method of retaining horses without having to purchase land, by using public or private grassland, often by the side of busy roads, for grazing. Because the tethered animal can be moved quickly, it is easy for people to tether a horse on land that does not belong to them and then move the animal before the authorities can identify the landowner or the owner of the animal. This results in it being virtually impossible to monitor the welfare of these animals, leaving around 3,500 horses in a state of potentially compromised welfare with little or no chance of intervention from charities.

There are a number of reasons why there has been such a large public response to the public campaign. In my constituency and the constituencies that surround it in the west of England, there is a big problem with tethering. There have been incidents where horses tethered by the roadside have been visible from the council offices in Yate, but despite this being a clear breach of the Animal Welfare Act, it could not be acted upon because the law does not state explicitly that tethering is a welfare concern. Unfortunately, because these horses are not protected by law, most cases of tethered horses that HorseWorld gets called to do not end well. The horses are simply moved before the Control of Horses Act 2015 can take effect. One incident saw a tethered horse break free near a large shopping centre at Cribbs Causeway in south Gloucestershire, next to a major road. By the time the horse was rescued and able to be seen by a vet, the injuries that it had sustained, most likely from having been hit by a car, meant that it had to be put down.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this important subject to the Adjournment debate tonight. The British Horse Society is on record as stating that although many horses will thrive on a diet consisting only of grass, it is vital that tethered horses are moved regularly to ensure a constant supply of fresh food, and that during the winter months or at any other time when grass is scarce, additional work and feeding needs to be carried out. Tethering is clearly not a long-term solution for any horse, and this has to be looked at. Does he agree that the change to the legislation that the Minister has a chance to bring in would be a way of addressing the issue?

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It is a genuine pleasure be intervened on by the hon. Gentleman in an Adjournment debate, and he is absolutely right. I will come on to some examples of how long-term tethering has been detrimental and caused death to animals in a number of cases. The nature of tethering means that it does not require large amounts of land, so horses can end up tethered in inner-city locations. A pony in south Bristol spent years tied to a tree on a grass verge and was harassed by local children and frequently escaped on to roads. The reality is that that was not a one-off.

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Do the majority of such incidents involve horses or ponies owned by Travellers who are just moving through?

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That can often be the case. If we are looking to change the legislation, we must ensure that we stamp out tethering and animal welfare abuses regardless of who owns the animal, but my hon. Friend is right to highlight that point.

As I said, such incidents are a regular occurrence. In 2016, a pony was found tethered among fly-tipped rubbish. It was so badly tangled up in a discarded bicycle that it could not even stand. This pony, which had a life-threatening injury, was lost to the authorities after the owner simply moved it and tethered it in another location before they could arrive. Sadly, just before Christmas last year, a member of the public came across a pony that had been tethered in a wooded area. The tether had become tangled around the surrounding trees and, in a desperate effort to break free, the one-year-old pony had strangled himself and lay dead in the mud at the end of his tether. It is therefore clear that the practice desperately requires stricter regulation.

HorseWorld, the charity that started the campaign, was spurred into action by the alarming case of a mare that gave birth to her foal while she was tethered. Unable to protect her foal from the other horses who roamed free in the same field, the mare became seriously distressed. Of course, protection of the young is one of our most basic instincts. Research into tethered horses in Wales, where tethering is rife, showed that 10% of tethered horses had young foals. Those are just a few examples of the horrors associated with long-term tethering, but because tethering is not restricted by law, people can tether horses unchecked beyond the reach of the law, resulting in tethered horses reaching despicable stages of neglect before they can be rescued.

I want to touch on the current regulations and legislation surrounding equine welfare and explain why they are not protecting tethered horses in practice. The Minister may refer to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs code of practice, which acts as a guide to safely tethering horses, but the code is not being adhered to in reality, as demonstrated by an investigation conducted in south Wales in 2014 by the excellent University of Bristol’s veterinary school, which gave five main conclusions.

First, the code of practice states that water should be made available on a regular basis in a spill-proof container, but the research concluded that up to 90% of animals were not given water regularly. Secondly, the code states that animals should, as a minimum, have shelter from the sun and wind and that the area should be well drained in the event of heavy rain, but the research tells us that no shelter was provided in over 80% of cases. Thirdly, animals should be given the freedom to exercise off the tether for a reasonable period at least once a day. In reality, however, less than 3% of horses spent more than five minutes a day off the tether, and no one would argue that five minutes is a reasonable amount of time. Fourthly, according to the code of practice, the tethering site should not contain anything that might injure the animal, but the reality is that sites contained potential hazards in 50% of cases. Fifthly, the code states that tethered horses require a high level of supervision, with inspections

“no less frequently than every 6 hours”.

However, it was found that only a third of horses were visited that regularly. While we have a code of practice, it is clearly not being adhered to, and the fact that an individual can move an animal before they ever reach the stage of being prosecuted renders the code of practice redundant.

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If a horse is tethered and left, the area around the tether will soon have no grass and will become muddy if it is wet, hugely damaging the horse. That is one of the other problems of tethering.

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My hon. Friend is right about damage to the environment, and I urge colleagues to look at some of the photos of horses that have been treated so badly. I mentioned the pony in south Bristol that was tied to a tree, and the surrounding area was a small stretch of grass between a pavement and the road. Yes, there was huge damage to the local environment, but there was damage to the pony, too.

The code of practice informs us that tethering is not a suitable long-term method of managing horses, as does the RSPCA, the British Horse Society, World Horse Welfare and Redwings, but absolutely nothing can be done legally to prevent someone from tethering a horse for its whole life.

Further, long-term tethering directly infringes the five freedoms set out by the Animal Welfare Act 2006: the need for a suitable environment; the need for a suitable diet; the need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns; the need to be housed with, or apart from, other animals; and the need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.

A tethered horse is not free to express natural behaviours. A horse that is free to roam will, on average, walk or run 10.6 miles a day, and the reality is that a tethered horse can come nowhere near that. As my many colleagues who keep horses can attest to, horses are flight animals. A horse’s most basic instinct is to flee from danger, which tethering does not allow. Tethering restricts a horse’s most natural behaviour.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. A large number of my constituents who have seen horses tethered locally have contacted me to express their concern about these issues.

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I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. We are seeing horses being tethered all across the country, potentially leaving them open to neglect, cruelty and abuse, and potentially posing a danger to the people around them, too.

Tethering is not deemed enough of a breach of the Animal Welfare Act to allow horse charities to intervene. A tethered horse also does not have the freedom to interact with its own species, as the Act says it should. Leaving horses isolated has been shown to increase stress levels and stress-related hormones, which can cause them to display stereotypical behaviours that cause physical and psychological harm.

Stereotypical behaviours are strongly linked to isolated horses; stabled horses tend to perform behaviours that engage with the stable around them, such as crib biting or weaving. Horses that are tethered long term have a total lack of environmental stimuli, so they are much more likely to develop stereotypical behaviours such as pacing or self-mutilation. This clearly raises questions about the clarity of the existing legislation and regulations on the grounds for removing a horse from a tether and on the capacity of law enforcers to act.

Long-term tethering is in direct conflict with legislation, yet in many instances authorities have not felt that the Animal Welfare Act is strong enough grounds to rescue horses, despite the obvious suffering. It is therefore my belief, and the belief of the charity that initiated this campaign, that the Act needs to be amended to state explicitly what constitutes inappropriate tethering.

One of the reasons why this is such an emotive subject is the location of tethered horses. As I said earlier, the main purpose of long-term tethering is free grazing, so horses end up on any strip of grass available, with the roadside, grass verges and even the middle of roundabouts, as we have seen in south Gloucestershire, being popular choices. It goes without saying that this is not remotely appropriate. Horses are easily spooked by traffic, and if the tether were to fail, there would be a loose horse on the road.

Advances in equine and animal science mean that we are much more able to understand what constitutes poor welfare, but our laws have not caught up with that deeper understanding. When I met HorseWorld staff, who are so passionate about what they do, I was told about a pregnant mare that escaped her tether and got on to a busy A road, where she narrowly avoided being hit by a lorry. Police had to attend the scene to monitor the horse until HorseWorld could assemble a team at 3 am. If the tethering laws were stricter, the lives of the mare and her unborn foal would not have been risked, a lorry driver would not have had to make an emergency stop on a main road and numerous hours of police time would not have been wasted.

That leads me on to my second point, which has been raised by other equine welfare charities in a number of reports: only appointed animal welfare officers or police constables have the authority to seize an animal. However, councils are in no way mandated to employ an animal welfare officer, so many choose not to do so. Our understanding is that as many as 40% of councils do not employ an animal welfare officer. In these areas, the police are the only organisation that has the power to rescue an animal from a situation where its welfare is compromised. I therefore ask the Minister to update us on what steps he is taking to gain a deeper understanding of the depth of the problem. The result of this situation is that police time is being spent attending horse rescues, which often just involve hours spent holding a horse at the side of the road when it had got on to the road. Only a police constable, once contacted, can authorise a charity to remove a horse. It is clear from written parliamentary questions I have tabled that the Government have no idea about the amount of police time that is spent dealing with these incidents. Clearly, police time can be better spent in the community. Having clarity over who should be dealing with equine welfare complaints will reduce the time that it takes to deal with them and will save the lives of animals. The councils that do employ animal welfare officers need to ensure that they are trained to handle horses. That could easily be achieved by collaborating with voluntary organisations.

Let me now address what needs to change. In the past, DEFRA Ministers have said that the current legislation appropriately meets the needs of tethered horses. The 19,000 people who signed a petition to get the tethered horses rescued from Rovers Way in Cardiff would disagree. The 12,000 people who have emailed their MPs about getting tethering laws tightened would disagree. I also think that all the experts who have been in touch with me and the voluntary organisations calling for stricter laws on tethering would also disagree.

There are therefore four changes that I would like to see incorporated into the 2006 Act to improve the lives of horses. The first is that there should be a 24-hour legal limit on how long horses can be tethered for. That is important, because DEFRA’s code of practice states that long-term tethering is inappropriate. That needs to be clarified, backed up and given status in law. The second is that there needs to be a complete ban on tethering horses on the roadside or in dangerous locations. The third is that if a tether is someone’s only method of keeping an animal, they should not be allowed to keep that animal. The fourth is to make it a mandatory duty for local councils to employ an animal welfare officer or to ensure that arrangements are in place with neighbouring authorities to ensure that those officers are in place.

There is currently too much room for interpretation within the legislation. It needs to be clear-cut that long-term tethering infringes on equine welfare, leaving horses at risk of harm and suffering. We need to give the relevant authorities the means and confidence to rescue horses that desperately need protection. We need to step up and take action to protect these most majestic and iconic animals. Making these changes will protect thousands of horses across our country. Minister, please help us and break the chain.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) on securing this debate, and I pay tribute to his campaigning activity in this House, on this issue and on many others, and to the hard work he does in the House.

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the issues relating to horse tethering. I know it is an issue of concern to many, not only because of the important welfare issues involved, but because of the visibility of tethered horses in our countryside and by our roads and the many challenges that can arise if tethering is not undertaken properly and in line with established guidance and good practice.

As the Minister with responsibility for animal welfare, I am clear that we have to uphold, and continue to drive up, our already high standards of welfare in this country, including in relation to the tethering of animals, and I applaud my hon. Friend for securing this debate and highlighting the issues that can arise. As he has so clearly set out, some people are not tethering their horses appropriately and are causing these poor animals distress and suffering. I was horrified to hear of the cases he set out of the suffering that poor tethering practice can cause our much loved horses and other equines. The practices in the examples he gave must be stamped out so that these noble animals can live without the threat of cruelty or a life of misery. I applaud the work that HorseWorld is doing to look after these horses, and I welcome the aims of its effective Break the Chain campaign which focuses on ending all inappropriate and long-term tethering of horses, and in particular on seeing a ban on the tethering of equines for longer than 24 hours.

As my hon. Friend clearly pointed out, it is an offence under section 9 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to fail to provide for an animal’s welfare. As he mentioned, that means that a person who cares for an animal—whether it is a pet, a working animal or a farm animal—must provide for its five welfare needs, as set out in the Act. Those needs are a suitable environment to live in; a healthy diet, including fresh, clean water; the ability to exhibit normal behaviours; appropriate company —for example, some animals need to live in social groups; and protection from pain, suffering, injury and disease. Section 4 of the Act goes even further and makes it an offence to cause a protected animal any unnecessary suffering—commonly known as animal cruelty.

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The Minister mentioned the requirement for horses to live among their own kind. We can vividly understand how difficult it must be for a lone horse. Were a man or woman put in a herd of horses on our own for 24 hours, we would understand how lonely that can be. It is lonely for a horse, too.

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. The aim of the Government’s work in this policy area is to highlight that tethering should be for the short term. We want these animals to be as socialised as possible.

The 2006 Act is backed up by a number of statutory codes of practice, including the code for the welfare of horses, ponies, donkeys and their hybrids. The code provides owners and keepers with information on how to meet their animals’ welfare needs and includes a specific section on how to tether horses and other animals covered by the code. Although it is not a specific offence to breach a provision of the code, if proceedings are brought against someone, the court will look at whether they complied with the statutory code in deciding whether they have committed an offence. That makes the code a key document in relation to prosecutions for animal welfare offences. We are very grateful for the input and assistance from the British Horse Council and the Horse Trust in particular and for their advice last year on the changes we made to the code, which was updated in April 2018.

I should clarify that tethering is not a banned activity, as there are circumstances in which tethering may avoid a greater risk of harm arising—for example, if a horse strayed into a place of danger. That point was made by World Horse Welfare in the statement issued this week, which said:

“We are concerned that banning tethering could lead to more horses kept indoors where their welfare cannot be monitored, or left to wander freely, endangering both themselves and the general public.”

Tethering is defined under the code as

“securing an animal by an appropriately attached chain, to a centre point or anchorage, causing it to be confined to a desired area.”

Furthermore, the code states that tethering

“is not a suitable method of long-term management of an animal,”

but

“may be useful as an exceptional short-term method of animal management”.

I think that goes a long way towards addressing the first and third changes that my hon. Friend proposed.

Although tethering is not prevented or illegal under the code, the code does include detailed specific advice on tethering and how it should be done properly. It details which animals are not suitable for tethering and provides advice on a suitable and appropriate site—for example, a site should not allow the horse access to a public highway or public footpaths. That helps to address the second change proposed by my hon. Friend. To tether a horse in such a way that it can physically be on a pavement or road is clearly contrary to the code and therefore open to enforcement action.

In addition to the statutory welfare code, other organisations provide advice on tethering. For example, World Horse Welfare has drawn attention to the code of practice produced by the National Equine Welfare Council specifically on tethering. In addition, the British Horse Society has produced a helpful leaflet that is available online and provides advice to anyone with concerns. The Redwings equine welfare charity also has useful advice on tethering, as does the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which has also produced guidance on tethering. Our concern today, though, is not with necessary tethering that is undertaken in the short term, in the right way and in exceptional circumstances, to avoid a greater risk of harm arising; it is with avoidable and unacceptable tethering.

Under the 2006 Act, local authorities have powers to investigate concerns about the welfare of animals and if necessary to seize them—if they are suffering, for example. They can also prosecute if someone is neglecting an animal in their care. In addition, the way the Act is drafted means that anyone can bring forward a prosecution under the Act, and it is on this basis that the RSPCA prosecutes many hundreds of people each year for animal cruelty or neglect. It is important that we all recognise the important work the RSPCA does in this area.

Those convicted of such crimes under the Act can be subject to an unlimited fine or imprisonment for up to six months. I am pleased to say that the Government have announced that they are increasing the maximum custodial penalty for animal cruelty from six months to five years of imprisonment. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will be very aware that the five-year penalty is already in place in Northern Ireland and we look forward to having it in England, too.

If anyone is concerned about how a horse or other animal has been tethered, they should report the matter either to the relevant local authority or to the RSPCA, which can investigate and if necessary take the matter further. If a horse or other animal is found not to be tethered appropriately, that could lead to a prosecution under the 2006 Act.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate mentioned the important role of local authorities in this area and the need for them to appoint animal welfare officers. Local authorities have strong powers to enforce welfare controls and often work in partnership with the RSPCA or other welfare charities, or indeed with other local authorities that have expertise in horse management.

Enforcement can be targeted according to local priorities and needs. In some areas, for example, horse abandonment or poor tethering practice might be an issue. In others, it may be non-existent. We encourage all interested parties to work together at local level to use the available powers to address the problem of abandoned or incorrectly tethered horses. Local authorities have powers under the 2006 Act to appoint welfare inspectors, as my hon. Friend pointed out, and I encourage them to do so to meet the needs of residents and equines in their area.

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The Minister refers to reporting to local authorities. A weekend is a long time, and local authorities close down. I should have thought that reporting it to the police might result in more action.

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Local authorities often have emergency contact numbers, and the RSPCA can give a 24/7—or at least seven day a week—response. I think my hon. Friend’s concerns are addressed.

I am conscious that, in the short time I have left to speak, it is also important to highlight that the Control of Horses Act 2015 is also relevant. It was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) with support from the Government and introduced more flexible options for the management of unlawfully placed or abandoned horses—often known as fly-grazing horses—some of which might be tethered. It has been welcomed by landowners, local authorities, countryside bodies and animal welfare charities.

In summary, the appropriate tethering of horses is an important issue that the Government are taking action to address. We have put a number of protections in the 2006 Act, the code for the welfare of horses and the 2015 Act. The strong arguments made today and the concerns that have been raised mean that I shall call for a meeting with key stakeholders in the months ahead to see what more can be done in sharing and documenting best practice on horse tethering and ensuring that messages on best practice are more actively disseminated to horse owners. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate on these matters in the months ahead and I am sure that that will help us to deliver animal welfare at a continued high standard now and in the years ahead.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.