Gelligaer Common, Stallion Pony iRSPCA Cymru has responded to more than 500 equine welfare incidents since Wales went into lockdown in March – with the charity warning that further economic downturn could lead to an impending horse welfare catastrophe.

The warning comes as the charity launches its month-long rehoming drive – Adoptober. An appeal has been launched to experienced horse owners across Wales to consider adding a rescue equine to their family, if they’re in a position to do so.

Across England and Wales, the number of horses in the RSPCA’s care is already three times what it was at the beginning of the 2009 economic downturn – and officers are bracing themselves for an influx of calls about abandoned and neglected horses as the country faces the prospect of even deeper financial downturn.

Microchipping will become compulsory for all equines in Wales irrespective of their age from 12 February 2021 – but the RSPCA believes this move alone, while welcome, will not be enough to tackle irresponsible breeders and owners at the heart of the equine crisis.

The concern comes amid a fall in donations for many animal welfare organisations during the Covid-19 pandemic, with limited resources often stretched to capacity. The scale of the financial challenges facing the sector is such that a recent survey by the National Equine Welfare Council and Association of Dogs and Cats Homes revealed nearly two thirds of equine rescues across England and Wales reporting an over 50% drop in donations.

Worryingly, the majority of organisations are now reporting that they only have enough funds left to survive for six months – or do not know how long their funds will last. The RSPCA is calling on the Welsh Government to provide specific financial support to the sector to aid its vital work during one of the toughest periods in the RSPCA’s 197-year history.

Chris Sherwood, chief executive of the RSPCA said: “New legislation demanding compulsory microchipping of all horses irrespective of age is set to come into effect in Wales early next year; currently around 70% of the horses we rescue are not microchipped.

“When compulsory microchipping came in for dogs, the number of strays reduced by 20% in four years, but unfortunately we just don’t think that’s going to happen for horses. Without rigorous enforcement and tough financial penalties, there is little to stop irresponsible horse owners continuing to breed and dump their animals.

“Local authorities – in charge of enforcement of equine identification regulations – are already operating with extremely limited resources and are facing the huge challenges of Covid, the recession and Brexit.

“The RSPCA and other equine welfare organisations have been struggling to pick up the pieces of the horse crisis since the last recession and as we enter what could be the biggest financial downturn of a generation, the sector is already bursting at the seams and facing unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic.

“Equine charities fear that autumn will create the perfect storm as grazing decreases, furlough ends and the recession potentially deepens, which could see more owners struggling with costs of care – leading to neglect and abandonment. However – worryingly – people have been continuing to breed horses despite this Covid crisis.

“Alongside this, we fear equine rescues -  already reporting a sharp drop in funds – may start to go under as the financial situation bites, which will increase the burden on the RSPCA. We are calling on the Welsh Government to step in with specific financial support as they have for other charities affected by the pandemic and recognise that the vital services provided by the animal welfare sector are under huge strain.”

Chair of the National Equine Welfare Council (NEWC), Nicolas de Brauwere MRCVS, added: “The Animal Welfare Act is an excellent tool to support both prevention of equine suffering – and to intervene when this has already occurred. However, to be effective we need the owner of the horse to be identified – otherwise the only option for animal welfare charities is to treat the animal as abandoned, which incurs huge cost to organisations relying solely on donations from the general public to carry out their work.

“Since equine identification legislation has come into effect, and especially now that all equines in Wales should be microchipped from 12 February 2021 onwards, we have the tools needed to associate all equines with an owner.

“But the system is in its infancy and will also be playing catchup with a large number of equines likely to be not properly documented by February next year. Local authorities, not animal welfare charities, have the power to enforce the regulations.

“NEWC are very keen to launch conversations with them about how we can work together and support them in their bid to gain the capacity to do this work, so that we see the welfare improvement that these equine identification changes promise”.

RSPCA Cymru has responded to 508 equine calls in Wales since the pandemic lockdown began in late March, up to 8 September – a high proportion of the 5,444 incidents dealt with by the charity across England and Wales.

Equine charities estimate that there are as many as 7,000 horses currently at risk of abandonment and neglect in England and Wales. In 2019, the RSPCA rehomed 246 horses, but almost 760 remain in the charity’s care to date, desperately needing new homes. At the time of the last recession, the RSPCA had 250 horses in its care in 2009, but following that downturn, numbers peaked at nearly 1,200 in 2013 – demonstrating the potential impact a more severe economic catastrophe could have.

On 28 July, the RSPCA worked with Redwings Horse Sanctuary, The British Horse Society and Caerphilly Council to help a very lame skewbald stallion pony found on Gelligaer Common.

The stallion – who was not microchipped – was struggling with an untreated abscess, and went into the care of the RSPCA for urgent treatment. He had to be sedated using a tranquiliser dart during the rescue, before being safely confined.

Christine McNeil, RSPCA inspector, said: “This skewbald stallion has a very nasty untreated abscess in his hoof, which required urgent attention.

“Safely taking this stallion from Gelligaer Common was a complex, multi-agency operation, and we’re grateful to Redwings, the British Horse Society and Caerphilly Council for their support.

“If anyone has any information about this pony, we’d still urge them to contact us on 0300 123 8018.”

The stallion – now named Howell, but previously known locally as Picasso – was offered a spot at Redwings Sanctuary in Norfolk in September, and the process to legally transfer his ownership to the centre from the local authority is ongoing.

However, many other equines continue to search for a new home after escaping neglect or mistreatment. RSPCA Cymru are appealing to experienced horse owners to consider rehoming a rescue horse if they possibly can – as they launch their annual Adoptober rehoming drive.

Staff are keen to showcase the versatility and capability of the horses they rescue, whether they are ridden horses, companion animals or youngsters with heaps of potential. Information on animals – including equines – currently in the care of the RSPCA can be found on the Find a Pet website.

Throughout the month of October, the RSPCA is shining a light on animals in its care which need a new home and promoting the benefits of adopting a rescue animal through its Adoptober campaign. The RSPCA is the UK’s biggest rehomer, finding 39,178 homes for pets last year – that’s 107 a day, or four each and every hour.

Under current Covid rehoming protocols anyone interested in fostering or adopting an animal from the RSPCA should visit the charity’s website to see which animals are available near you and should check with their local centre for the current process applicable in that area.