HARD-UP horse breeders are having their thoroughbred animals slaughtered rather than pay the cost of keeping them, it was revealed last night.
An animal welfare charity is calling for an investigation into the practice it claims is on the increase because of the worsening economic situation.
According to the charity, a leading National Hunt jockey confirmed that 18 healthy horses were sent to be destroyed simply because they failed to sell at a recent auction.
Animal Aid says the animals – which cost between E3,500 and E7,000 a year to keep – were sent to be killed after the November Foal Sales hosted by bloodstock dealers Goffs.
Just over half the 1,008 horses in the five-day sale in November failed to attract buyers and Animal Aid claims the owners of 18 animals decided to have them put down.
The horse-breeding industry soared during the Celtic Tiger years, with cash-rich developers splashing out on bloodstock.
Sales of purebred horses have, however, been falling since a peak in 2007, and the market is now saturated with horses whose owners can never expect to make huge profits.
Only a small percentage of foals are ever likely to earn substantial race winnings and, to many small breeders, sending horses to the slaughterhouse is now one of the cheapest options available to them.
Nick Nugent, director of sales at Goffs, said last night: ‘I have not heard anything about this and would happily help in any investigation.
‘The death of horses is an emotive issue but all lives come to an end and ultimately, there comes a time when some horses can’t be cared for any more. Every year, a certain number of horses are put down, as are cats, dogs and budgerigars.
‘That said, once our sales are over, Goffs is totally out of the loop when it comes to what happens to animals.’
Last night, a respected specialist in equine medicine warned people in Ireland to get used to the ‘unpalatable truth’ about horse deaths.
Des Leadon, head of clinical pathology at Co. Kildare’s Irish Equine Centre, said last night: ‘If 18 horses were sent to be destroyed humanely, as this charity has claimed, I don’t have a problem with that.
‘If the alternative is their neglect because their owners can’t afford to keep them, then I think it was the right thing to do.
‘There is an unpalatable truth to be acknowledged here and everybody needs to face up to it.’
Animal Aid’s Dean Stansall said last night: ‘We cannot name the individual who told us about the fate of 18 horses after the Goffs sale but he is a leading National Hunt jockey.
‘He was given the specific information and was so appalled that he told us about it. We have been trying to highlight the issue of over-breeding in the horse industry for years.
‘There are just too many horses and not enough races. ‘The market is collapsing and breeders are realising their animals are not worth what they thought they would be and it doesn’t make economic sense to keep them. The quickest way to deal with that problem is to have the animal killed.
‘We are going to formally request an investigation into the alleged incidents that we have been told about.’
All thoroughbred horses have to be DNA-tested and micro-chipped and when registered with Weatherbys – the company that maintains the Thoroughbred Breeding Registry in Britain and Ireland – they are issued with a horse passport.
Registered thoroughbred breeders are required to return the passports once an animal dies.
Last night, a Weatherbys spokeswoman said that the company receives about 70 or 80 passports every couple of months.
But she added: ‘It’s very hard to keep track of every animal and although owners must return their animals’ passports on death, they don’t always do so as required.’
Though there are strict Department of Agriculture guidelines on the slaughter of horses for horsemeat exports to countries such as France and Italy, it is not against the law have an animal destroyed humanely – whatever the reason.
A former employee of Goffs said: ‘When times are hard, it is not unknown for a breeder to make a call after a failed sale and have the animal taken away. When the market on the floor, vendors get desperate.
‘I know of incidents in the past when there were trucks down the lane at the back gate. There would be men waiting for a call from vendors who would then give them a few hundred and hand them over the animal.’
Mr Leadon warned that Ireland needed to be careful not to end up like America. There, breeders are releasing unwanted horses into the wild.
He said: ‘In the US, horses are being let loose into forests and deserts where they are left to fend for themselves. It is much better for a horse be put down humanely than starve.’
According to the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, Ireland has 416 stallions, 20,700 thoroughbred mares and 12,633 foals born in 2007.