Thu, Dec 23, 2010 - Page 13 News List

Courses for horses

Only kilometers from the heart of Dublin, a former landfill is the end of the road for many horses that have been abandoned because of Ireland’s financial difficulties

By John F. Burns  /  NY Times News Service, Dublin

A horse grazes in front of derelict flats in the Ballymun area of Dublin, Ireland.

Photo: Reuters

In this country of lush green landscapes, celebrated for its traditional love of horses and the generations of racing thoroughbreds it has bred to conquer the racetracks of the world, the Dunsink tip on the outskirts of the Irish capital is a place that wounds the heart.

Atop a muddy dome stretching over hundreds of windblown hectares, bitingly cold in the bitterest early winter many here can remember, roam some of the tens of thousands of horses and ponies that have been abandoned amid Ireland’s financial nightmare. Only kilometers from the heart of Dublin, the tip, a former landfill now covered with a thin thatch of grass, is the end of the road for all but the hardiest animals, a place where death awaits from exposure, starvation, untended sickness and injury.

Beside a busy expressway, on one of the tip’s distant corners, mounds of fresh dirt mark the graves of the weakest horses, freed from suffering by animal welfare inspectors with .32-caliber pistol shots to their heads. Overhead, airliners climb out of Dublin’s international airport, where a plush new terminal matches Dublin’s sprawl of gleaming steel-and-glass buildings built for the investment tide of the boom years.

The distress among the country’s horses began showing up more than two years ago, when Ireland’s property boom collapsed. That was a grim marker on the road to the crunch that hit this month, when Ireland accepted a US$90 billion international bailout package, pledged on the government’s promise of instituting the harshest austerity measures in Europe.

By rough economic estimates, the US$20 billion in spending cuts and tax increases promised over the next four years by Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen’s government will lead to a 10 percent cut in the disposable income of Ireland’s middle class, and greater hardships still for many of the country’s poor. They will be hit by welfare cuts, public-sector job losses and a sharp reduction in the minimum wage, as well as a wider economic turndown, on top of the 15 percent shrinkage in the economy since 2008, if the emergency measures fail to restore economic growth.

But the horses that are such an enduring part of Irish culture are paying a price, too. For generations, keeping horses has been an Irish passion — for those who like to enter them in flat-racing, steeplechase and show-jumping competitions, for those who keep them for recreational occasions like hunts and equestrian events, and for still others who see horse ownership as a symbol of prosperity, much as other people find pleasure in owning luxury cars.

How many horses and ponies have been abandoned is a matter of informed guesswork. Irish laws require all owners to have their animals registered, and tagged with microchips for identification, but the laws have been only sporadically enforced. What is certain is that the boom years brought a rapid growth in breeding, and that tens of thousands of people who could not previously afford a horse or pony entered the market, many of them keeping their animals in gardens, on fenced-off building sites or on common land like the Dunsink tip.

With the economic downturn, many found that they could no longer afford to feed or stable the animals at costs that can run to US$40 a day, and abandoned them to wander untended around construction sites, through towns and villages and along rural roads. Joe Collins, president of the Veterinary Council of Ireland, estimates that there are 10,000 to 20,000 “surplus horses” across the country. Another leading expert on horses, Ted Walsh, the father of one of the country’s most famous steeplechase jockeys, Ruby Walsh, has said that the number could be as high as 100,000.

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