Crosskennan Lane Animal Sanctuary fears closure over horse bill dispute
A County Antrim charity that rescues abandoned horses says it will have to shut because of a massive bill it says it is owed by Belfast City Council.
Crosskennan Lane Animal Sanctuary has invoiced the council for more than £70,000.
The charity says the council is disputing the amount and has not paid the bulk of the money.
The bill arose from work the charity did to remove horses from the council-run Cavehill Country Park last year.
Eighteen horses left there by an unidentified owner had become neglected and were becoming a nuisance.
Lyn Friel, who heads the charity, said: "If we don't get the money we are going to have to close our doors because we can't continue.
"We're robbing Peter to pay Paul at the moment and we can't continue to work like this."'No contractual liability'
While the animal sanctuary had no formal contract with the council, it said it was asked to intervene by a council official and believed it had a "gentleman's agreement" that it would foot the bill.
The charity transported the animals from the hill and paid for veterinary bills, food and lodging for more than a year, running up costs of more than £70,000.
Belfast City Council did make an interim payment of about £6,000, but last week Crosskennan got a letter saying it was only prepared to pay a fraction of the rest.
In the letter the council said it had begun an "internal investigation" to "ascertain the circumstances around how the horses came to be in your care, and whether the council has any liability to pay the invoices you have submitted, particularly in relation to livery costs".
"The council's early investigations would indicate that the council has no contractual liability to pay for this," it said.
The council did agree to give another £4,000 to the charity and pay for the upkeep of the horses for a further two weeks "to afford you the opportunity to re-home or otherwise dispose of the horses".
"For the avoidance of doubt, the council will have no liability for these horses at all after that date," the letter said.'Considerable grief'
Ms Friel said only three of the 18 horses had been successfully re-homed because they needed competent handling.
She said her charity had taken on the job of recovering the horses "in good faith".
"It has caused us considerable grief, we owe the money, we're not asking for anything we haven't spent on these horses and I just don't know what we're going to do," she said.
The council had issued a statement to the BBC refusing to comment and criticising the charity for disclosing the letter it had sent.
"The letter you have seen was sent as a without prejudice letter and therefore Crosskennan have acted entirely inappropriately in disclosing it to a third party, particularly given the fact that the council is carrying out an ongoing investigation into the issue and that legal proceedings are a possibility," it said.
"As this is a contractual dispute, the council would point out that the proper forum for resolving the dispute is through the courts as opposed to through the media."
It has now issued a second statement saying it had asked to meet Crosskennan to "resolve the outstanding issues".