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Animal rights protesters to picket Hobbit premiere

Animal rights protesters plan to picket the UK premiere of The Hobbit after whistleblowers came forward to claim three horses died unnecessarily during filming.

The release next month of the first film in Peter Jackson's three-part adaptation of the JRR Tolkien novel has been tainted by claims that poor animal welfare standards on location in New Zealand contributed to the preventable deaths of more than 20 animals including horses, sheep, goats and chickens.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals claims concerns were raised early on in the filming, with one handler, known as a wrangler, warning in late 2010 that the farm where the animals were kept was full of "death traps". Four wranglers raised their concerns to PETA, saying they had been ignored by the film company. One claimed he was fired for bringing up the issue of animal safety on set.

Two horses died after breaking their necks while another died after his diet was suddenly changed, it is claimed. The wranglers also allege that goats and sheep died from worm infestations.

A spokesman for director Peter Jackson said the production company had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on improving farm facilities.