What to do if you find an abandoned or fly grazing horse
Abandoned and fly-grazing horses are sadly not an uncommon problem, however, major changes to the law, which came into effect in Wales in 2014 (Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014) and England in 2015 (Control of Horses Act 2015), have made it easier for public and private landowners and authorities to act quickly to protect horse welfare.
This guide is to help you if you find an abandoned or fly grazing horse, however it should not be read as legal advice.
Abandoned horses are those that have been left somewhere deliberately by their owner, either permanently or for a long enough period of time that has led to unnecessary suffering or the risk of unnecessary suffering.
Section 9 of the Animal Welfare Act (2006) makes a person guilty of an offence if they fail in their legal duty of care to provide for their horse’s needs.
Fly grazing horses
Fly grazing horses are those that have been deliberately allowed to graze on land without the occupier’s permission.
This includes horses belonging to owners who had been given permission to keep their horse(s) there at first, but the agreement with the landowner has come to an end.
I have found an abandoned horse. What should I do?
Landowners, occupiers and local authorities are each able to act to protect the welfare of abandoned and fly grazing horses. If you are the landowner, see full advice below.
- If the horse is suffering, call the RSPCA
- If you are not the landowner, contact the landowner as soon as possible
- If you do not know who the landowner is or how to contact them, you can contact your local police station, local authority, and/or the RSPCA, who can advise you further based on the situation. It’s worth noting that while landowners and authorities can act more quickly, they must act within the law and may not be able to attend immediately.
- If the horse is wandering in the road, as with any animal found on a road, you should call the police. If there is a danger to road users, call 999. Otherwise, call non-emergency number 101.
A horse has been abandoned on my land. What should I do?
1. Taking care of the horse’s welfare
- First of all, keep calm. A horse that has been abandoned or left to fly graze may well be very frightened. We recommend you don’t approach the horse unless you need to, to avoid causing the horse additional stress.
- Fetch some fresh, clean water for the horse
- If you are able to, make sure the horse is contained in a safe and enclosed area where they can graze safely. If the area of land where the horse has been abandoned is not secure and is alongside a road, tell the police as the horse could be a danger to road users.
- We recommend that you don’t move the horse to within touching distance of your own horses to limit the spread of any infectious diseases
- If the horse looks unwell or in poor condition, call a vet or the RSPCA
2. Notifying the authorities
- Wales: Contact your local authority. Landowners do not have the power to detain a horse in Wales; only the local authority can do this. As such, the following information applies to England only.
- England: Call your local police station and notify the officer in charge within 24 hours of detaining the horse (this is a legal requirement) and ask for an incident number. Make a note of the number in your record. Even if you know who the owner is, you should still get an incident number.
- Call the RSCPA to report the abandoned horse. Although depending on the situation the RSPCA may not be able to get involved, they may have information that can help you, or you could give them more relevant information.
- Does the horse have a freezemark? If you can see one without getting too close to the horse, make a note of the mark and call Farmkey on 0870 870 7107 or Freezemark Ltd on 01295 690090
- You could ask a vet to scan for a microchip, if they are happy that they can get close enough to the horse safely. If the horse is chipped, contact your local authority and the microchipping databases: Petlog, Avid, Petprotect, and Anibase.
3. Tracking down the owner
- Finding the owner. Although it is not a legal requirement to do so, you may wish to post up an abandonment notice that the owner can respond to. If you decide to do this, you should put the notice up for a minimum of four working days. A responsible owner should attend to their horse at least once a day, so four working days should give sufficient time for them to respond. Download our sample abandonment notice below.
- Any notice should include your contact number and address, a short description of the horse, and state your intention to remove the horse if the owner does not come forward.
- Post the notice where you found the horse in a location that is easy to spot.
- We recommend posting a notice even if you suspect the horse is being fly-grazed.
- If an owner comes forward. You can check they are the real owner by asking to see the horse’s passport. By law they should have the passport and it should contain a detailed description of the horse. If the person has recently taken on the horse, they may not yet have the passport, but they should be able to provide you with evidence of ownership. If you are worried about whether or not the person is the legal owner, contact the police for advice.
- You don’t have to release the horse until the owner has reimbursed you for any damage to your property caused by the horse, and any expenses reasonably incurred in keeping the horse and finding its owner.
- If the owner refuses to pay within the ‘defined period’, you can rehome, sell, euthanise or keep the horse. The ‘defined period’ is set out in the Animals Act 1971 and is 96 hours from the period when the horse was first detained but ignoring any time falling on any of the following days: 1) Saturday or Sunday, 2) Good Friday or Christmas Day, 3) A day which is a bank holiday in England and Wales (as defined by the Banking and Financial Dealing Act 1971).
- If the owner does not come forward. After the ‘defined period’ (see above), there are a number of options open to you. whatever action you decide to take, you must keep a record of money spend or received, expenses uncured, and actions taken, such as veterinary treatments. If the owner then comes forward, you are entitled to ask them for compensation to cover ‘reasonable’ expenses.
Under section 7c (5) Animals Act 1971, you become the legal owner of the horse if the owner doesn’t come forward within the ‘defined period’. Your options then are:
- Keep the horse
- Selling the horse. It’s a good idea to get a professional valuation in order to deduct reasonable costs and damages from the sale. Bear in mind that you may have to give any money left over to the person who previously owned the horse. To sell the horse, you will need its passport, which may be tricky to get hold of because of the circumstances. Contact Defra for advice about this on 08459 33 55 77. You could also try the breed society, if you know the breed.
- Removing the horse. If you are worried about intimidation from the previous owner or don’t want to rehome or sell the horse yourself, contact a bailiff with experience of removing animals.
Keeping a record
- Remember. Keep a diary record with a timeline of all your actions, including any advice you get from professionals and anything you do regarding the horse’s care. Keep notes of any money you spend caring for the horse’s welfare. This record will help you to prove that you have acted in the horse’s best interests.
- Have your fences or gates been tampered with? If so, take photographs for your record. Checking for damages will help you to understand whether the horse is being intentionally fly grazed or has wandered on to your land straying. Photographs will help you prove your case and claim damages.
- Can you see any evidence that the horse has been well cared for? Signs of good care that may suggest the horse has escaped include; being shod, clipped, having a hogged mane, trimmed tail or trimmed whiskers. However, an unkempt appearance doesn’t necessarily mean a horse has been abandoned; if in a large group of horses, they could be being fly grazed.
I have found a tethered horse. What can I do?
Tethering a horse as a lone action is not illegal and so authorities, including the RSPCA, do not have any powers to do anything about it.
If a tethered horse is abandoned on private land for a period of time that has led to the horse being at risk of, or suffering, unnecessary suffering, then the authorities can act.
If a tethered horse is left to fly graze on private land, the landowner can take action.
For landowners and occupiers: Advice for preventing fly grazing and abandoned horses
Taking steps to try and make it more difficult for horses to be abandoned on your land can help stop the problem. You could try:
- Locking field gates, especially when the gates provide access to a public road
- If practical, you could plough or fence off areas of your field that are particularly vulnerable, as abandoned and fly grazing horses are most often left where there is grass. Bear in mind you shouldn’t block a right of way or put up anything that might cause an injury.
- We recommend not allowing horses on your land without a written agreement (see below), even temporarily
- Research fly grazing insurance, which is available through several insurance companies
For livery yard owners: Advice for preventing fly grazing and abandoned horses
Unfortunately, some cases have been reported of owners booking their horses into livery with the intention of abandoning their horse. These tips should help you lessen the risk:
- A written agreement for new clients and asking for fees up front for a few months should act as a deterrent. Confirm the client’s address by posting the contract to them and asking them to sign and return it. You could also ask for proof of address, such as driving licence or utility bills.
- Ask to see the horse’s passport before agreeing to take on the horse. By law, the passport should be kept where the horse is kept.