Equine Welfare (Ragwort Control) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:07 pm on 21st March 2003.

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Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 1:07 pm, 21st March 2003

I begin by thanking Mr. Greenway for the way in which he introduced this Bill, and the constructive manner in which he has dealt with a matter of great concern to the countryside. During 1997 and afterwards, when we both had different responsibilities, he and I had many exchanges relating to criminal justice. Those exchanges were almost invariably constructive—something that cannot always be said of exchanges in this House. The hon. Gentleman's approach and our discussions with each other and with the British Horse Society have been extremely constructive; indeed, they have pointed to a way forward, to which I shall return in a few minutes.

I acknowledge that ragwort poses a real threat to equine welfare—a point made by several Members—and its devastating, often fatal effect on horses, ponies and donkeys has been well publicised. Indeed, the hon. Member for Ryedale spelt that out in a contribution that ranged from the clinical to the almost poetic. Some might suggest that this is not an appropriate matter to debate in this House; indeed, one or two Members have contrasted the main topics for today's debate with other issues such as today's statement. However, the fact is that the death of a pony can have a devastating effect on a family, and on children who lose an animal that is more than just a pet. It is clear that we need to do more about this issue.

I also share with the hon. Gentleman a wish to achieve simple, practical and effective action. We want to avoid increasing the costs and bureaucracy for those who can take measures to eradicate ragwort. Several hon. Members made constructive contributions along those lines, including my hon. Friend John Mann, who effectively represented the ragwort warriors of his constituency. My hon. Friend Shona McIsaac brought an informed approach to the debate. I understand that the issue formed part of her academic studies, which is why she has such an excellent knowledge of the topic. My hon. Friend and Sandra Gidley mentioned other forms of ragwort, and the main point to make is that they also have poisonous effects but are nothing like as common as the common ragwort, which is the plant referred to specifically in the Weeds Act 1959. I am not sure about the relative toxicity of the other forms of ragwort, but I shall look into it and ensure that when we discuss it in Committee I am able to deal with those queries.

I also congratulate Mr. Djanogly on his contribution, which was clearly derived from personal local experience. Mr. Gray covered ground on which we generally agree, although I suggest gently that he showed more enthusiasm for regulation than is often the case in our exchanges. He mentioned the messages that we send out to people who are concerned about horses and to the horse industry generally. I am pleased by the response that I have received from people in the horse industry on various issues.

The Government have sought to do more than in the past to assist the horse industry, not least by designating an official for the horse who has specific responsibility for working with the industry. That was not the case before. I am the third person to be the Minister with responsibility for the horse, but the flaw was the lack of specific and targeted back-up in the Department. That has now been corrected and Graham Cory, who leads on the issue, has had many meetings with the horse industry. That has been widely welcomed. We are also looking at working with those who are involved in the wide variety of organisations that comprise the horse industry to map out the benefits that can be achieved and to identify the future for the industry.

Ragwort poses a real threat to equine welfare. The focus of this debate has been on horses, but—as some hon. Members have pointed out—ragwort poisoning can also prove fatal for cattle, sheep and other animals, through cumulative liver damage. However, because of the differences in the digestive systems, the effect is most usually observed in horses and ponies, in which it arises more rapidly. The effect of ragwort on the liver is less noticeable in cattle and sheep because most agricultural livestock is slaughtered before the cumulative effect proves fatal. I also acknowledge that the emotional attachment to horses and ponies makes it all the more distressing for owners to see their animals suffering from ragwort poisoning and what can often be a slow and painful death.

Ragwort poses two specific risks to horses. First, there is a risk that horses and ponies will eat ragwort growing in field and paddocks. Secondly, as has already been pointed out, there is a risk that ragwort will contaminate dried forage. The latter is possibly the greater risk, as in its dried state ragwort is more palatable to animals. I do not have authoritative statistics about the number of horses and ponies which die each year from ragwort poisoning, although hon. Members have pointed to the estimate made by the British Horse Society of some 500 deaths. The BHS expects that number to increase. We all have a part to play in preventing those deaths.

I want to concentrate mainly on what the Government and public bodies can do, but I am sure that it will be accepted that horse and pony owners have responsibilities too. They must protect their animals from ragwort poisoning when they are able to take preventive action. That includes ensuring that bought-in feed is purchased from a reputable dealer and warranted to be ragwort-free. I have discussed the issue with the British Horse Society, and I am grateful for its work in bringing that message home to horse owners. I am delighted to learn that Pony Club messages have reached the homes of hon. Members.

It is essential that we ensure that horse and pony owners can recognise ragwort and other poisonous plants. The suggestion of using visual aids to widen coverage of the debate is a helpful one, although I am not sure, in the current climate, how extensive national coverage might be. It is important for people to know what action they should take to control poisonous weeds in fields or paddocks where animals are grazing. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is helping; we have published identification leaflets and booklets describing weed control methodology, and those are available on our website. I shall send copies of that information to all the hon. Members who have taken part in today's debate. Anything Members can do to advertise the availability of that information would be most welcome.