An equine plague on streets of the North

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The Independent Online
For many residents they are a dangerous nuisance, for the owners a way of life. The growing problem of urban horses and ponies is the symbol of a culture clash between expanding populations and the desire of many to keep in touch with rural traditions.

Nowhere is this clash stronger than in Bishop Auckland, Co Durham, where in recent weeks two horses have been killed or had to be put down after collisions with cars.

Eighteen months ago, an eight-week old baby was bitten by a horse which forced its way through a garden fence, and there are numerous stories of the animals roaming through private gardens, along busy bypasses and even being raced up high streets.

The problem is now so serious that Wear Valley district council is studying new legislation passed in Dublin, where the phenomenon of urban ponies was featured in the film The Commitments.

Councillor Sonny Douthwaite, who is trying to find a solution, fears more injuries. "I'm angry about the loose horses on the road, which are an accident waiting to happen. It's an ever-growing problem." Like many, he recognises the cultural history of people owning horses while living in homes with little or no land. Some inherited the tradition as "residential" travellers, while others simply see it as a pastime.

"For some people it's a hobby, like I keep racing pigeons," said Mr Douthwaite. "In the past I've even seen horse's heads sticking out of bedroom windows," he said.

Now the horses - perhaps more than 50 in the area - can be seen grazing on football pitches, scraps of land and in areas in the middle of busy residential housing estates.

Melanie Atkinson recalled how her son Dexter, then eight weeks old, was bitten on the hand when a pony tied to her garden fence outside broke through. "My daughter looked out and said, `the baby dead'. She had seen her hand in the horse's mouth." Ms Atkinson added: "I was petrified and I am now terrified of horses. The police came but said they could do nothing, as they could not trace the owner." She was also warned not to complain about the incident in a town were some of the owners are feared. Inspector Edgar, of the local police, agreed that to try to find some owners was like "finding needles in a haystack ... with more traffic the likelihood of fatal accidents is increasing."

One problem is that current laws, including the 1980 Highway Act, are inadequate in dealing with the impounding of loose horses. Local authorities employ a horse catcher but often by the time he arrives the horses have gone. A mooted solution is to create a designated horse pound, on the model of a car pound and charge owners pounds 100 or more to retrieve their animals. Another is to find local authority land where the horses, normally kept as pets, can be safely tethered.

Some animal-welfare experts believe the growth in horse numbers comes from the decline in European markets for UK horse meat, to which some animals were sent, because of the BSE scare.

One man said the answer was to keep them on rented farmland, but another resident summed up their fears: "Nothing will be done until some gets killed," he said.