A new law is now available to tackle the problem of fly-grazing in England (other, recently passed laws apply in Wales). The grazing of horses (which includes mules, asses and hinnies) on private or public land without permission has been a serious problem for land owners for some years. According to animal welfare charities it involves around 3,000 horses across the country at any one time.
The Control of Horses Act 2015 amends the Animals Act 1971. Previously, anyone finding horses abandoned on their land had to wait 14 days before they could “dispose” of them by sale at market or public auction. Frequently the owner would reclaim them at the last minute only to dump them again. However, as of 26 May 2015, the Control of Horses Act 2015 has brought about significant legal changes in favour of landowners and local authorities.
Under the 2015 Act –
- A landowner who finds a horse in his field without permission, whether through straying or dumping, can insist on keeping it for 96 hours provided he gives notice to a police station and the owner of the horse (if known) within the first 24 hours.
- The owner of the horse has 96 hours from the time of detention to collect the horse, failing which ownership of the horse passes to the landowner. This is a radical change in the law. Once the four days are up the land owner can either sell or dispose of the horse in any manner he chooses. This could mean the horse being sold for profit or slaughter or even destroyed.
- The horse owner is liable to the landowner for any damage the horse does to his land or property as well as any expenses the landowner incurs whilst detaining or disposing of the horse.
- A landowner detaining a horse under the Act has a duty to treat it with reasonable care which specifically includes providing adequate food and water and in any case has a general obligation to ensure that its welfare needs are met.
- The person detaining the horse can be liable in damages to the horse owner if he fails to treat it with reasonable care.
- Local authorities have similar powers in respect of public land including common land, town or village greens and highways or highway verges.
Some may think that 4 days is a very short period of time for the owner to reclaim their horse before losing ownership, especially when part of it may have elapsed before the owner is notified, if notified at all. Horses will normally be checked daily but one situation where injustice to the owner is foreseeable, is where a horse on temporary loan is allowed to stray. If the loaner fails to act in time and if the owner is unaware of the situation and so does nothing, the horse will become the property of the landowner.
All horse owners in England need to be aware of the Control of Horses Act 2015 and understand that if their horse should stray and not be reclaimed within 4 days then they may lose ownership of it altogether and even find that it has been destroyed.
Since a police station has to be notified and will presumably put such notifications straight onto a national register, it will be crucial for the owner of a missing horse to contact the police immediately and microchipping may well prove to be a highly valuable means of urgent proof of identification in addition to the immediate production of an up to date passport.