Serenity of an early morning mountain walk shattered by disturbing discovery
A mother and her two teenage children set off on their weekly walk across Divis Mountain yesterday morning, as they do every Sunday.
The trail is hugely popular with walkers of all ages and abilities and yesterday, like most weekends, it was thronged with families and outdoors enthusiasts.
But when the family arrived at the entrance to the pathway they were greeted, not by the stunning scenery of which the area is familiar, but something more akin to a horror film.
Four horses with gruesome injuries were gathered close to the National Trust car park adjacent to the start of the walk.
With gaping gashes in their legs, they stood in pools of blood. The most badly injured horse had a missing eye.
The mother and children came upon the horses at around 9am and were horrified by what they saw.
An animal-lover and previous keeper of horses, she knew that medical help was needed.
Little did she know her call for help would turn in to a five-hour wait for a vet to arrive to examine the four stricken animals.
Her frustration came from a change in the law last April which gave councils here control over the welfare of non-farmed animals.
Following the legislation – The Welfare of Animals Act – animal welfare officers now investigate reports of abuse, neglect or animals at risk. But there are only five officers across Northern Ireland – and just one on duty at weekends.
Animal rights campaigners gave a cautious welcome to the new law when it was being drafted. It promised a tougher stance on those guilty of animal cruelty.
But they also warned at that time of the resources required to implement the new measures.
Yesterday, the on-call animal welfare officer was in Omagh. Having headed for Divis Mountain as soon as the call came in, they didn't arrive until around 2.30pm, roughly the same time a vet tasked by the police arrived. The time which had elapsed from when the woman first discovered the horses was over five-and-a-half hours.
Midway through the wait the woman contacted the Belfast Telegraph appealing for our help.
Asked how long she would be at the exposed mountain top for, she replied: "I'm not going anywhere until someone helps these animals. I couldn't."
"I have been ringing continuously looking for someone to help these poor horses. They must be in agony. I left my children home, they are traumatised. But I couldn't not come back until I knew someone was here to help the animals," she said.
Just before 3pm the decision was made to put one of the animals down due to its injuries.
The Good Samaritan said she was devastated it had to endure the pain of its severe wounds for over seven hours until it was put out of its misery.
"I have kept horses before," she said. "I blame the new legislation which came in. This isn't good enough. We knew the resources weren't there for this sort of thing and we have been proved right, unfortunately. Something has to be done, this is not acceptable."
A man who came upon the horses early morning said he had witnessed two young men in the area with what he believed were a pack of hunting dogs.
In 2010, the UK's Equine Health and Welfare Review Group described horse welfare as being at breaking point in the province. In March 2011, three horses were found dead and 48 others in squalid conditions at a farm in north Antrim.
Another 60 were removed from an Antrim farm in November 2011, 23 of which went to Redwings, based in Norfolk.
The Department of Agriculture is understood to have initially set aside £760,000 for the first year of the new scheme, rising by £20,000 each year until 2014. Last September, Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill said the new law was proving a success, but admitted there was some confusion regarding who should be contacted when animal welfare breaches are discovered.
"The USPCA also raised with me the fact that people were not always sure of the best point of contact," she said."Given there are three agencies involved, it is important that we continue to raise awareness and to publicise those contact points."
A spokesperson for DARD was unavailable for comment last night.