Thursday, February 5, 2009
UK Racehorse Slaughter & Foal Killing
Why healthy foals are being killed across Britain...to end up as dog food and on French dinner plates
By Zoe Brennan
Graceful and sleek, the beautiful bay racehorse was used to the thunder of applause as she swept past the grandstand - not the sound of a rifle. The seven-year-old mare had raced at courses up and down the country, nostrils flaring, long neck straining and mane flying in the wind as she approached the winning post. However, earlier this month, her career ended unceremoniously with one last outing - to the slaughterhouse.
She was led into a 12ft square metal stall and killed with a bullet fired from the 'meat man's' .22 rifle into her brain.
No more crowds, galloping hooves up the home straight or champagne corks popping. That single shot was the last sound she heard.
For the bullet: Just one of the thousands of horses paying the price of the recession
Next, her body was lifted and strung up by her elegant hind legs, and her throat cut. Then the process of dismemberment, disembowelling and flaying began. Afterwards, her carcass was loaded onto a freezer lorry and driven to the Continent, to be sold as gourmet meat.
Shockingly, this perfectly healthy racehorse was taken from her stables in Lambourn, Berkshire, and slaughtered at a British abattoir simply because 'business is bad' in the racing world.
Her owner, who talks only on condition he is not named, says curtly: 'I didn't have a choice. I couldn't afford to keep her at the stud.'
The man did at least have a pang of conscience - he had first called Serena Miller, of the Midland Racehorse Care Centre in Ludlow, Shropshire, to see if she could take the animal.
'He had two mares, and we put them on our waiting list. But when I called back, he told me they'd already been sent to the abattoir. It was very, very upsetting,' she says.
So much for the sport of kings. A Mail investigation has revealed that, across Britain, the racing industry is indulging in wholesale slaughter: foals are being killed at birth; mares shot in the field; pregnant horses aborted and healthy prize-winners butchered in abattoirs.
In the meantime, racehorse rescue centres are so overwhelmed by abandoned animals that their waiting lists are longer than ever.
A deadly combination of the credit crunch, plunging bloodstock prices and an over-production of horses during the racing boom of the past few years has resulted in a slaughter which could not be further removed from the glamour of the racecourse.
A few weeks ago, for example, the eight-year-old chestnut gelding, Cash King, which came sixth in a field of 16 at Aintree last May and won thousands of pounds in prize money, was rescued by an animal charity as he was about to be loaded onto a lorry for the slaughterhouse. A stable lad alerted the charity to the horse's plight.
One source says: 'The bottom has fallen out of the industry and we are seeing some true horror stories.'
There are two main horse abattoirs in Britain: L.J. Potter in Taunton, Somerset (where animals are killed on Wednesdays), and Turners near Nantwich, Cheshire, where they carry out 'equine services' on Fridays.
Unscrupulous: Foals are no longer worth last year's 'extortionate' prices
Serena Miller witnessed what happens at Turners: 'I went in pretending to be a racehorse owner and was given a tour of the slaughterhouse by Valerie Turner, the owner's wife,' she says.
'There were some very young thoroughbreds waiting to be killed. They were just babies. Shots were going off all the time, and they were petrified.
'They were shaking, weeing themselves, eating each others' necks. Their eyes were wild, they were wet with sweat and there was a stink of blood. I asked how long they had been there for, and I was told a week.
'A week waiting in terror to be shot. It was a sorry sight. I was told that their trainer had dropped them off on the way to the races.'
Miller was also shown the slaughtered horses being skinned. 'They put the carcass on the floor, with their foot in the middle of the horse's head. They then held it by the ears and ripped the skin off. They threw it to one side. It turned my stomach.'
Turners claims to kill about 700 racehorses a year. The skins go into the leather trade, while the meat is shipped for human consumption on the Continent, with off-cuts going for dog meat.
Certainly, this is not the world imagined by racegoers in their Ascot finery. But the problem is made far worse by a huge surfeit of horses, deliberately created in order that only the very best and fastest animals are available to satisfy the demands of the multi-millionaire owners who bankroll the business.
Animal Aid, the welfare body which monitors the industry, says 18,000 foals were born in the British and Irish racing industry in 2008 - double the number of a decade ago. Only 8,000 make it into competitive racing.
Of the remaining 10,000, about 2,000 racehorses a year are slaughtered at abattoirs, according to Animal Aid.
Research by the Food Standards Agency shows that, in 2008, a total of 3,183 horses were killed in British abattoirs.
But this does not tell the whole story. A number of live animals are sent to the Continent to be slaughtered, with some ending up at French 'fat farms', where they are bulked up in order to get the best price at the butcher.
And an unknown number are shot dead on British farms.
Happily, a proportion end up loved and employed in other areas of the horse world. And some are used as brood mares - although now there is no profit in producing a foal, there is far less demand.
However, the racehorse industry disputes Animal Aid's figures. The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) says it conducted an audit of thoroughbreds last year - horses can be 'tracked' thanks to micro-chipping and the introduction of 'horse passports' - and it found that about 1,200 had been killed in abattoirs. A further unspecified number were killed in Irish slaughterhouses.
Lost glamour: A racehorse is led off to be shot at an abbattoir
Professor Tim Morris, director of equine science and welfare at the BHA, says: 'The humane killing of an animal is not in itself a welfare issue.
'We have no objective data to make us think there are major welfare issues, though we recognise that 2009 is likely to be a testing year for owners of any kind of horse.
'We need to ensure we are well-informed and neither over nor under-reacting on thoroughbred welfare. We will continue to work closely with animal welfare organisations.'
It is the fate of newborn foals that is perhaps the most gruesome. In the boom years, breeders would pay a stud fee - sometimes running into hundreds of thousands of pounds - to have their mare covered by a stallion, and would then sell the resulting foal for considerably more.
Today, however, the foals are no longer worth anything like the stud fees that breeders committed themselves to paying 11 months ago - the length of a horse's gestation.
And so unscrupulous and desperate breeders have found a grotesque and illegal solution: killing foals at birth - or aborting them - to avoid having to stump up the fees, which become payable only once the foal has lived for 48 hours.
'Breeders pay a nomination fee to have a mare covered by a stallion. Last year, that fee could have been £250,000, but now you would pay half that for the same stallion,' says a bloodstock agent.
'A lot of people are making sure the foals don't live 48 hours so they can avoid having to pay the fee. Why pay last year's extortionate prices when you won't cover your cost on selling the foal?' There are also reports of pregnant mares being 'given a shot' by the vet to induce abortion, again to avoid paying stallion fees.
A spokesman for the BHA says: 'It is possible that some of the thoroughbreds put down last year were foals. Foals can certainly suffer from accidents in paddocks or have physical problems that could prevent them becoming racehorses.
'I would reiterate again that the Authority regulates racing, not breeding, and requires that those it licences, in this case owners and trainers, meet the law - the Animal Welfare Act.'
Foals which previously might have been sold for £40,000 each at auction now sell for just hundreds of pounds - if at all. The result is that many breeders are abandoning unsold foals at auction houses rather than taking them home.
Just before Christmas, Animal Aid received a tip-off from a well-known National Hunt jockey that 18 thoroughbred foals were destroyed after a horse auction at Goffs in Ireland (which supplies the British race circuit).
Gruesome: Breeders are killing newborn foals to avoid paying the stud fees
The healthy young animals had not sold, and so their owners paid for them to be put down rather than take them home and bear the expense of keeping them.
Animal Aid director Andrew Tyler says: 'An increasing number of thoroughbreds are being killed because they are just not profitable,' he says. 'The recession is putting owners under pressure, and this is an industry which disposes of its surplus ruthlessly, without sentiment.'
A racing insider says: 'There has been a real over-production and the industry is in a mess. It is stagnant. Horses have been turning up at sales half-starved because owners can't afford to feed them.'
Andrew Goatman, an independent knacker's man working in Devon and Cornwall, confirms the gruesome trend: 'There has been a marked increase in the number of racehorses being shot. I'm a one-man band, but the big abattoirs must be busy. I've shot ten racehorses since Christmas.'
Stephen Potter, a partner at Potters abattoir, admits they are seeing more racehorses - particularly brood mares - but he believes it is better for a racehorse to be put down than sold cheaply.
Potter, who estimates he is slaughtering around 750 racehorses a year, says: 'There has been a great deal of growth in racing in the past decade, and now, with the recession, interest is waning.
'It is better for a racehorse to be put down than for it to go to a home where it will be neglected.'
As for the welfare centres, they cannot cope with the demand. Serena Miller, of the Midland Care Centre, says: 'We are turning away more and more racehorses every day. I have noticed an increase in the number of people calling who are considering slaughter as an option.'
Increasingly, she is finding that, rather than pay vet's bills to have the horse put down, which can cost as much as £500, owners are looking to cover costs by selling the horse for meat - they can pocket £650 for a full-grown thoroughbred.
Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock, officer of the Parliamentary Animal Welfare Group, has demanded an investigation into what he calls 'a barbaric waste'.
'This disgusting slaughter of healthy animals is a tragedy, a horrendous story,' he says. 'When you consider the amount of money in the horse-racing business, it is scandalous that they are disposing of animals in this callous manner.
'Many organisations would welcome these animals - they can be retrained and placed with private owners.'
That, indeed, would have been a gentler fate for the friendly bay mare than a perfunctory bullet in the head. We can only hope she has gone to a greener, more pleasant land than the racing world.