The impact of Brexit on horse welfare - Veterinary Practice
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The impact of Brexit on horse welfare

Transporting horses to Europe in the post-Brexit world involves delays and extra costs that threaten the welfare of the animals and the UK’s participation in top level equestrian sport, according to speakers at the National Equine Forum

Since 1 January, when the UK finally completed the divorce from its former partners in the European Union, new arrangements have come into force for animals and goods crossing the Channel to Europe. The bureaucratic burden imposed by these rules is presenting huge challenges to anyone wanting to maintain an export trade with Europe or to compete in international events, the online audience was told.

Henry Bullen, director of the international shipping agents Peden Bloodstock, said that sending a horse to the continent has suddenly become more complicated, time-consuming and almost as costly as transporting the same animal to the United States. It is also a more stressful experience for the people and horses involved. But the problems could get much worse when COVID restrictions are lifted and international competitions resume, he warned.

Most owners of horses travelling to France want their animals to be shipped overnight when ferries are less busy and temperatures are cooler. But French border control posts are only open for limited hours each day and there have already been incidents in which animals have been kept at the dockside for several hours before their documentation can be approved.

“That is alright in the winter when the weather is cool, but when the summer comes it will not be acceptable for horses to be standing in a trailer with the hot sun beating down for half an hour, let alone the eight-hour delays that we have been experiencing – we will have a welfare crisis,” he warned.

Henry said that with the UK now outside the trading bloc, any horse being sent abroad will need to be accompanied by up to 99 pages of documents whereas previously export was a relatively simple process requiring about four pages. The process is complex and there are major costs if the papers are rejected and the horse sent back. This means that the transporting company is heavily reliant on its veterinary advisors to ensure that all relevant blood tests and other requirements are completed well in advance.

More stringent rules also affect the routine management of the horse while in transit. The animal can be sent with any food that it will need for the journey, but any additional forage will have to be certified in relation to its place of origin and freedom from plant pathogens, he noted.

Claire Williams, executive director of the British Equestrian Trade Association, confirmed that these newly emerged bureaucratic problems are affecting all aspects of trade with Europe and all EU member states. Her member companies are involved in exporting riding equipment, feed and other products worth more than £500,000 a year with about half of those sales going to the EU.

The difficulties in maintaining trade have come as a major shock to those companies, which now find they are dealing with 27 countries with different VAT rules and differences in interpretation even between officials from the same nation. She feared that a combination of increased costs and difficulties in guaranteeing deliveries are likely to force customers to seek alternative suppliers.

Simon Brooks-Ward is chief executive of the HPower Group which organises equine events in the UK and abroad. He feared that the problems cited by Claire could also have a disastrous impact on equestrian sport, pointing out that UK events like Badminton are only a small part of the international sporting calendar. If the costs and complexity of transporting horses between the UK and Europe increase significantly for European competitors, they may decide against participating in British events and UK competitors may then choose to move their horses abroad permanently, he warned.

Asked whether there are any benefits from the changes in the UK’s relationship with Europe, speakers said they were struggling to see positive aspects at the moment. But in the longer term, it was possible that the UK will be able to sign trade agreements with countries such as Japan which could open up new opportunities for the UK equine sector.

In the meantime, the UK will need to come to terms with the new arrangements and hope that the problems will be ironed out eventually, they said.

Henry Bullen said this would require improved communications between horse owners, vets, transport companies and the regulatory bodies on both sides of the channel. He believed there was a willingness among colleagues on the Continent and in international bodies like the FEI (International Federation of Equestrian Sports) to maintain good working relationships.

Simon Brooks-Ward argued that equine sporting events are a shop window for the whole of the UK equine sector, which directly and indirectly employs around 270,000 people and generates around £8 billion a year. He said the whole industry needs to come together to support a lobbying campaign that would urge UK ministers and their European colleagues to treat the health of the international equine industry as a key political priority.

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