Equines in the Upcoming Legislative Proposals on Animal Welfare

15 Dec 2022
Today the Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals chaired by MEP Tilly Metz (the Greens/EFA, LU) illustrated the difficult conditions faced by equines, the loopholes in the current legal framework to guarantee their welfare and highlighted solutions and upcoming opportunities.

Sabrina Gurtner from Animal Welfare Foundation introduced the investigations and findings on animal welfare concerns arising from the production of the hormone PMSG, also called eCG. PMSG/eCG is extracted from blood mares at an early stage of the pregnancy. Investigations on the production of PMSG/eCG show that the volumes of blood extracted are way above international recommendations. 

Foals are byproducts of the production and aborted in South America, and are usually slaughtered in Iceland. Footage from blood farms were showcased highlighting the mistreatment of the mares in Argentina, Uruguay and Iceland. PMSG/eCG is also produced on a German stud farm on a smaller scale. PMSG/eCG is used to boost fertility and productivity in industrial farming. 

The welfare of farm animals is also compromised as they have no time to recover between pregnancies and induced superovulation leads to increased piglet mortality. There are numerous hormone-free and synthetic alternatives available making the production of PMSG/eCG in breach of EU legislation and the principle of the 3 Rs. 

In addition, the production and use of PMSG/eCG goes against the ambition of the EU for sustainable food systems and the presenter called for prohibition of imports, production and use of PMSG/eCG to be included in the upcoming Regulation on kept animals for economic purposes.

Following a question from Manuela Ripa (the Greens/EFA, DE), Sabrina Gurtner confirmed that it is insufficient to ban the use of PMSG as production in the EU to export to third countries can not be excluded. 

With regards to provisions that could safeguard the welfare of the animals, Sabrina Gurtner highlighted that, due to systematic welfare problems, it is not possible to introduce such conditions for the mares and for the foals, which are byproducts of this industry. Another problem is the large number of mares that are used for the activity to be profitable, making operators extract higher volumes of blood when less mares are used. 

In addition, it is not possible to extract blood without stress. Dr Joe Collins also mentioned that technologies have evolved so that the hormones can be synthetically produced without using animals. Echoing a question from MEP Francisco Guerreiro (the Greens/EFA, PT) it was mentioned that abortions in mares are very difficult, potentially fatal, and particularly inhumane at the stage of the pregnancy where PMSG/eCG production stops.

The EU represents a very large market share of the eCG market and has a crucial role to play for the welfare of these animals. Assistant to MEP Annika Bruna (ID, FR) mentioned that a written question on this issue was submitted to the Commission with a disappointing answer confirming that there is no list of farms using PMSG/eCG in the EU and no information on whether they receive EU subsidies. MEP Annika Bruna (ID, FR) proposed that the Intergroup would write a letter to the European Commission requesting clarifications on this question, which was confirmed by the Chair who also emphasised that applying and being coherent with current legislation requires to prohibit production and use of PMSG/eCG.

Dr. Joe Collins from The Donkey Sanctuary presented a new report on Working equids in the European Union published by The Donkey Sanctuary, World Horse Welfare and Eurogroup for Animals. Working equids are often invisible despite their importance and the fact their use aligns with the sustainability agenda. 

There are working equids in forestry and environmental management but they also have a role in urban landscapes. The report lists some areas of concerns where the welfare of working equids need to be better protected such as husbandry, working practices, environment and transport. The EU must recognise working equids’ role and support communities. It must also protect them by enshrining minimum standards for equine welfare and ensure that these standards are enforced. MEP Tilly Metz (the Greens/EFA, LU) mentioned that it is important for these animals to be able to retire in optimal conditions at the end of their career.

In her presentation, Jessica Stark from World Horse Welfare highlighted that the purpose and role of equines evolve throughout their life and they are essential to some communities and industries. They are used for multiple purposes often falling outside legal categories under the current legislation. Their unique status therefore makes them vulnerable. 

The upcoming animal welfare legislation is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to raise the animal welfare standards of all equines regardless of their role. The revised legislation should provide clear rules based on the Five Domains and latest evidence regarding species-specific behaviour and needs, including positive and adequate training methods as well as education for handlers. 

Transport is also crucial as provisions should introduce maximum journey times, species-specific conditions and ensure that there is no distinction between registered and non-registered equines. Jessica Stark also highlighted the need for a list of equines-licensed slaughterhouses and asked for equines to be considered in the discussions on animal welfare labelling. She finally called MEPs to support such equine-specific provisions and practical rules within the upcoming animal welfare legislation.

Christophe Marie from Fondation Brigitte Bardot introduced footage taken by the organisation in the Maurs fare in France in October 2022 depicting the abuse and mistreatment of horses and their terrible conditions. This fare takes place twice a year and the horses are mainly sent to Italy for slaughter. These investigations demonstrate the lack of veterinary control at the fare. Christophe Marie called for an intervention of the Intergroup to challenge French authorities and government on this question, and this intention was supported by Manuela Ripa (the Greens/EFA, DE) and confirmed by the Chair.

Manuela Ripa (the Greens/EFA, DE) asked about the treatment of sport horses and whether this use can comply with animal welfare standards. Jessica Stark highlighted that the welfare of horses is prioritised in horse racing but can always be improved in line with scientific evidence, including on training, keeping and competition. Dr. Joe Collins added that there are still too many inadequate training and handling methods setting a terrible example for younger generations and raising concerns on training education. 

Finally, MEP Michal Wiezik (Renew, SK) mentioned that equines are a unique group of grazers playing an important role in restoration of grasslands and asked whether we could use horses in rewilding processes. Jessica Stark confirmed the potential of horses in such a framework as they can play a big role in sustainability but it is essential to keep their welfare in mind.

The Chair then closed the Intergroup session addressing specific issues affecting equine welfare and the need for adequate provisions in the upcoming animal welfare legislation.