City of horses faces a fodder famine

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The Independent Online
THE SIGHT of horses grazing peacefully on patches of grass between the ugly concrete tower blocks in north Dublin has long been viewed as an alternative tourist attraction.

Tethered on patches of common ground or allowed to wander freely around the city, they are a familiar sight to residents and were even immortalised in the film The Commitments, where they were shown being led into the lift of a multi-storey building.

The writer Roddy Doyle was forced to defend the scene after it was greeted with howls of derision by those who had never been to the city. Dubliners hardly raised an eyebrow.

But the horses may not form part of the urban landscape for much longer.

Most of the animals belong to teenagers and young children who tether them on open land in parts of the city. Now many horses and ponies have been left to fend for themselves, dying a slow death from starvation because their young owners simply cannot afford to feed them.

The constant downpours that have drenched the country since last summer have led to such severe flooding that there is a drastic shortage of fodder for both the horses, and for thousands of cattle on the farms.

This has led to a sharp increase in the prices of what little hay and silage there is, and many of the young owners - some barely teenagers - cannot afford the feed, because even a small bale of hay now costs pounds 3.50.

Last Thursday, horse wardens removed seven dead animals from open land in west Dublin. Earlier, a further 42 emaciated horses were removed by local authority staff from open land nearby, between Clondalkin and Lucan to the west of the city.

They had been forced to eat raw earth in their desperate hunt for food.

The lack of fodder has also affected Ireland's dwindling number of livestock farmers. Last year's long spells of rain left little time for muddy pasture ground to recover, reducing the harvest of available hay usually held by farmers, and affecting output in east coast areas that normally generate a surplus.

Falling meat prices have meant that farmers cannot raise the money to buy supplementary fodder and many have left their cattle to fend for themselves by grazing at the side of the road. Last week, in a stark illustration of the problem, a desperate farmer dumped 20 emaciated cows and calves near Roscarbery, in Co Cork.

The animals' identifying ear-tags had been cut off before the carcasses were abandoned, to prevent the health authorities from tracing the owner.

Gerard Buckley, the local veterinary officer, said there had been other cases of animal dumping elsewhere in Co Cork and warned of potential health hazards. He predicted the problem would increase as the fodder crisis continues.

Irish farm organisations and animal welfare groups are becoming increasingly alarmed at the problem, and Ciaran O'Donovan, the chief executive of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ISPCA), was meeting officials from the Department of Agriculture yesterday to beg for emergency funds.

"We have had 25 per cent more rainfall than usual," he said. "Normally at this time of year the grass should be growing - but the rain is continuing, the ground has turned to mud with animals trampling on it and nothing will grow. So we have a shortage of food left over from last summer and the prospect that no grass will grow until April or even May."

The ISPCA said that cattle were facing serious health problems because they had been left standing in water-logged fields with no dry shelter to lie down and rest.

The problem is worst in pockets of the country where few farmers are able to afford those supplies that are on sale at premium prices.

Areas suffering the worst fodder shortages include west Limerick, Roscommon and parts of Donegal. In badly hit areas the price of silage has more than doubled in 12 months.The crisis has led to an additional IRpounds 110m turnover of commercial animal feedstuffs, up by 30 per cent on the normal sales level since last June.

Teagasc, the Irish state farm advisory body, has played down suggestions of a national feed emergency and urged farmers with problems to contact it for advice.

A spokesman confirmed that between 40,000 and 50,000 of the Irish Republic's 149,500 farmers are now in difficulty. The total number of farmers has dropped by 30,000 since 1995.

Derek Cunningham, a spokesman for the Irish Farmers' Association, confirmed that the poor weather and the collapse in beef prices has caused the problem.

"There are a lot of farmers who don't have the cash and they've held on to animals they can't get rid of," he said. "Some people are finding it very difficult to get rid of poor-quality animals."

As a result many farmers have opted to sell far more cattle than usual since Christmas, leading to even lower prices from meat processors.

This has put them in a Catch 22 situation, squeezed between the prohibitively high feed prices and their reduced income as cattle markets yield lower revenues.