DUBLIN – 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 kilometres 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-calibre 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 in December, when Ireland accepted a $90 billion international bailout package, pledged on the government’s promise of instituting the harshest austerity measures in Europe.
By rough economic estimates, the $20 billion in spending cuts and tax increases promised over the next four years by 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 up to $40 a day and more 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.
Another way to measure the scale of the problem is to visit the Dunsink tip. Celebrated in history as the site of one of Europe’s most famous astronomical observatories, established in 1785 at a time when Dunsink lay in open country, it became in more recent times a trysting place for drug dealers, car thieves and desperate people who came to its desolate reaches to hang themselves from the trees sheltering on the lower reaches of the land. The sense of desolation is accentuated by the scatter of concrete venting pipes that draw off lethal methane gas from the generations of decomposing garbage below.
But Dunsink was also traditionally a place to graze horses, common land where those without stables and land of their own could set their animals to roam, then return to recover them later. For some owners, that has not changed, and Dunsink still serves, for them, as a convenient and cost-free range. But for others, it has become a favourite dumping ground for horses and ponies they can no longer afford.
Differentiating between the various kinds of owners is not easy, as became clear in an encounter with Thomas Boyd, one of the few souls besides an animal inspector who had braved the near-arctic cold on a recent afternoon. Boyd, 33, recently released from Mountjoy Prison in Dublin after the latest in a series of terms for what he described as “law and order offenses,” along with problems with alcohol and drugs, arrived trailing a horse by a length of frayed blue plastic cord.
His story was an uncertain one, perhaps fashioned to suit the encounter with the inspector, Tony McGovern of the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. As Boyd told it, he had come to the tip with the 3-year-old brown-and-white skewbald mare to find her a “more nutritious” diet than that provided in the stables close to his home in the nearby working-class district of Finglas. He said he would leave the mare for “a couple of weeks,” then recover her.
McGovern demurred, saying there was little or no nutrition in the tip’s winter grass. In any case, Boyd bade farewell and, apparently thinking himself beyond the inspector’s reach, released the skewbald and began fruitlessly pursuing two gray ponies scampering across the tip in a herd of 30 or 40 horses.
His account, later, was that he wanted to catch the ponies for his children, but McGovern said he believed that Boyd was leaving the skewbald to fend for herself while hoping to capture the ponies for resale in the Smithfield Horse Market, a largely unregulated event that is held once a month on the grounds of an abandoned distillery beside the River Liffey in Dublin.
There, end-of-the-line horses are traded for as little as $15 each, some as pets, some for slaughter.
The animal welfare society has limited stabling capacity at its headquarters in the Dublin hills and a budget of only $500,000 for horses and ponies. And the society’s figures suggest that the problem is getting worse. In 2008, it took in 26 sick or injured horses and ponies; in 2009, it took in 106; and so far this year, 115.
On a recent morning, two American veterinarians who work as volunteers at the centre, Judy Magowitz of Laurel, Maryland, and Katie Melick of Los Angeles, spent hours working feverishly to save a black Falabella miniature horse, Napoleon, which they had found collapsed in one of the centre’s paddocks. Barely waist high, with a shaggy black coat, Napoleon was judged by nightfall to be beyond further help and was put down, joining the dozens of other horses who have been brought to the centre too late to be saved.