The last of 14 horses left to go feral on hills outside Belfast have been brought to safety – and delivered a tiny surprise into the bargain.
As the unseasonably late snows gripped Cavehill this spring, animal lovers were forced to hire a snow plough to get feed to the horses on the uplands.
By last weekend just three of the 14 horses remained on the hills, according to Crosskennan Lane Animal Sanctuary, which has been leading the rescue effort. They were the 'alpha male' stallion, a heavily-pregnant mare and the foal she gave birth to on the hills last year.
On Monday the mare went into labour and gave birth to another foal, leaving the way clear to complete the rescue attempt yesterday.
Crosskennan is now faced with a major problem – it says 2013 was its worst ever year for abandoned and neglected horses and it has reached the point where there is no one to care for any more horses. It faces the possibility that it will have to slaughter rescued animals.
Janice Watt, chairman of the sanctuary, said the owner of the 14 horses had let them go feral on the hills for more than a year when the hungry animals began breaking through a boundary into Cavehill Country Park.
Members of the public visiting the park began feeding the animals treats, but several people were injured when the wild horses came looking for food.
Cavehill Country Park asked the sanctuary to remove the horses but this proved to be a major challenge because of their wild nature and the difficult terrain.
The horses couldn't remain on the hills because of the danger to the public and the lack of food in winter, so volunteers came up every day during the winter to provide feed and get the animals used to them.
"We had arranged the big rescue just before the snow hit," Janice said. "It was a five-hour round-trip on foot, trailing bales of hay and buckets of feed onto the top of the mountain."
Once the snow cleared, the volunteers began moving the herd down. All were moved, except the stallion, the mare, which was too heavily-pregnant to move, and her foal. In all, seven of the mares were pregnant, although two later miscarried as they were too young to carry a foal to term.
If the herd hadn't been removed, there could potentially have been more than 20 horses by the end of the year and double that next summer, Janice said. But they could well have starved to death before that, she admitted.
The sanctuary is now caring for an unprecedented 168 horses and needs £15,000 to build a new 'mother and baby' unit to care for the high numbers of pregnant mares that have been taken in in recent months.
"The harsh reality of the situation is that these abandoned horses and ponies will go for slaughter if we can't admit them. It's incredibly frustrating to see so many unnecessary pregnancies. We need to expand our facilities in order to house all these newborns and their mums, which is going to cost us £15,000.
"We're making a heartfelt appeal to the animal loving public to please donate what they can."
To donate to Crosskennan Lane Animal Sanctuary visit www.crosskennanlane.org.uk or text CLAS12 and the amount you would like to donate to 70070.
You can also help by offering one of their horses or ponies a home, creating an empty stable for another horse in need. To offer one of their horses or ponies a temporary or permanent home or set up a monthly donation by direct debit, contact them on (028) 9446 5384 or firstname.lastname@example.org