Our positions 2800 x 1000_0015_Imports and exports

Horse smuggling to/from Great Britain

Horse export and import laws in the UK should be better enforced to stop horses being moved under the radar.

Horse export and import laws in the UK should be better enforced to stop horses being moved under the radar.

Horse smuggling – why does it happen?

There have been no declarations of horses being exported for slaughter for many years, but we question the reality of this. We know that horses and ponies are being moved on fraudulent passports and some do end their lives in slaughterhouses abroad. These equines are being transported ‘under the radar’, often travelling long distances in sub-standard conditions.  Many will not be fit for the intended journey, perhaps due to injury or underlying health conditions for example. 

To many of us, horses are much-loved pets or members of the family, but to those involved in the trade of ‘low value’ horses between Britain and the EU they are simply a commodity. Falsely re-identifying a horse who has been signed out of the food chain with a fraudulent ‘clean’ passport makes a horse appear eligible for slaughter. This means the trader can still make a profit from them if they don’t sell for riding or breeding purposes.

Horses re-identified with fraudulent passports are often moved out of their country of origin. EU Member States and the UK now have central equine databases that contain information on an individual horse’s food chain status, but slaughterhouse officials often cannot access the databases of other EU countries. This means they tend to rely on matching the horse’s microchip number with the paper passport, which can be falsified.

In addition to the non-compliant trade in equines, this activity can be used to cover up other illegal activities, including smuggling puppies, wild birds, exotic animals, drugs or money. This is partly because enforcement agencies are often reluctant to check a vehicle loaded with horses. The traders often use red diesel and have no authorisations, insurance or tax, and use low-paid workers. The transactions are made in cash and frequently not disclosed for tax purposes. The equine trade may therefore be a small part of a rather more complex picture of organised criminal activities.

A hypothetical example of the horse smuggling trade

Horses X and Y are bought as part of a large group, with less than £500 paid for the whole lot. All horses in the group have been signed out of the food chain because of medication they have received in the past. However, the trader who has bought them has retained a bundle of passports belonging to dead horses who had not been signed out of the food chain.

The trader chooses to illegally amend the chip numbers in the old passports to match the horses they’ve just bought. The group is then moved on the fraudulent passports to an EU country to be sold at a market. Horse X is bought by a trekking centre which only intends to keep them for a year and wants to have the option to send them to slaughter afterwards.

Horse Y is not sold, so the trader decides to sell them for meat (which they couldn’t do while the horse had the correct passport). Some horses in the group sell at a loss, but others make a small profit, ensuring the trip is profitable for the trader.

On the same trip, the trader has also moved horses legitimately for owners who have paid for their animals to be transported. Lastly, the trader has used the move to hide a trade in drugs. The trade in the “low value” horses was therefore only a small part of a much more complex picture, on just one trip.

Our recommendations in relation to the horse smuggling trade 

  • The UK Parliament must pass the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill that includes a ban on live export to slaughter from Great Britain, However, we believe this should be extended to include imports.    
  • A 12-hour maximum journey time (half the current limit of 24 hours), with a 9-hour rest, should be introduced in Great Britain and the EU to better protect those horses who are being moved as part of this trade (and not going to slaughter). 
  • For a maximum journey time limit and a ban to be enforceable, horses must be fully traceable and paper passports – which can be easily faked – must be replaced with a digitised system in Great Britain and the EU. 
  • Greater collaboration between government bodies and enforcement agencies is urgently needed to ensure intelligence is shared, these non-compliant traders are identified, and action is taken. 
  • Intelligence-led checks, with the occasional spot check, must be conducted at ports. Resources must be allocated to allow for horses to be held and cared for while investigations are ongoing.  
Read more: 

Our position on Equine ID and traceability

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