Welfare chief condemns abattoir practices shown in Panorama documentary

The chair of UK racing's Horse Welfare Board has reacted with astonishment to Panorama's evidence, broadcast on Monday night, that many ex-racehorses have been transported from Ireland to be killed in an abattoir near Swindon.

Barry Johnson, a former president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, also deplored the evidence shown of poor practices at the abattoir that would lead to unnecessary suffering of the horses involved.

"Some of it is pretty damning of the slaughter industry," Johnson said last night. "The main thing is with these horses from Ireland. We have a policy for the correct euthanasia of horses when it's in their interests to be euthanised and it clearly states, done as near to where they are, their home, as possible.

"This transporting from Ireland to England for slaughter, I can think of no reason why you would do it." Referring to another allegation made by Panorama, he continued: "And travelling injured horses 350 miles is appalling. I just don't understand that.

"We need to have better traceability and we're striving very hard to get that. We need to tighten up on our aftercare funding and we've done a report on that. Now we need to bring forward the changes necessary, to apply to the lifetime of the horse. 

"We're getting on with it. I have a meeting in the morning with Retraining of Racehorses, not because of this, it was pre-arranged. We're constantly trying to take forward the aftercare funding review, which was completed in spring. Now it's the implementation of that to take it forward, so this sort of thing in the future cannot happen in England."

As had been widely expected, the programme opened with the image of Gordon Elliott sitting astride the deceased Morgan, which leaked onto social media in February and may indeed have prompted the producers into action. It was shown twice in Panorama's opening five minutes.

"Beneath the glamour of horse racing, there lies a dark side," said presenter Darragh MacIntyre, who called for the sport to ensure its participants were treated with "dignity and care" after their racing days were over. The programme included distressing images of horses about to be killed at the abattoir of Drury & Sons as well as allegations they had come from the yards of high-profile trainers, including Gordon Elliott and Gavin Cromwell, who were named.

Questions about the microchipping of racehorses were raised when it was revealed that the chip belonging to Tammys Hill had turned up in another horse at the abattoir five years after he had died.

Mary Frances of the Moorcroft Rehabilitation Centre was shown, speaking of the funding difficulties faced by her business. "Sadly, so many of them come to us with injuries and ailments that need time and without a doubt a large amount of funding," she told Panorama.

"There is money available but there doesn't seem to be the understanding or the desire to put the money where it is needed." 

No comment was offered to the Racing Post by the owners of the Drury & Sons abattoir, which has been the subject of similar allegations in the past, including on a previous occasion when Animal Aid were able to film there covertly. A report on its website dating from 2010 records allegations of cruelty and breaches of the law in relation to the treatment of sheep, goats and calves, accompanied by pictures, but says that no prosecution resulted.

In October, Drury & Sons and its director Stephen Potter were found guilty of animal welfare offences at Aldershot Magistrates Court in relation to the treatment of a mare that arrived in an obviously injured state and struggled to stand or walk, but received no treatment until the following day. According to Wiltshire Council, which brought the prosecution, a fine of £22,170 was levied on Potter and the two businesses involved in the exchange of the horse.

The licensing and regulation of abattoirs is the responsibility of the Food Standards Agency, which issued a statement attributed to a government spokesman. It said: "The FSA has asked Panorama to supply the footage that has been obtained during this investigation. If there is any evidence of mistreatment of animals, they will take action and investigate thoroughly."

In its responses to Panorama's inquiries, the BHA pointed to its creation of the Horse Welfare Board and the publication last year of a detailed strategy to promote the welfare of racehorses.

It added: "The BHA has not been given any evidence by the programme-makers to suggest that the welfare of any British-based thoroughbred horse has been compromised. Nevertheless, we will consider carefully any issues raised."

The BHA also issued some data in an attempt to give context to the discussion around aftercare of racehorses, noting that around 20,000 individual thoroughbreds race each year, making up less than three per cent of the total horse population of Britain. It noted that 9,007 horses are now registered on the Retraining of Racehorses website and more horses took part in ROR dressage competitions in 2019 than ran in steeplechases, by 4,148 to 2,965.

It asserted that British racing "is among the most advanced when it comes to traceability and aftercare for its participants" but acknowledged the need for improvement in this area and that there are "gaps in the industry's knowledge of the whereabouts of thoroughbreds bred for racing".  

"Racing needs to ensure it has 100 per cent traceability of a horse's first step away from racing and a clear understanding of where these horses go," a BHA statement said.

The HWB has recently hired three new staff members to tackle this work. The BHA estimates £1.4m per year is invested in aftercare of racehorses by racing-related sources, on top of what is spent by individuals and organisations tackling the work on their own.