Ponies detained at Belfast Port over Brexit forms to be released

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Image caption,
The Dartmoor ponies were bought as a birthday gift

Four horses held for a month at Belfast Port due to incorrect post-Brexit paperwork are to be released, a judge has ordered.

The Dartmoor ponies, bought by a County Down woman for her daughter's birthday, were detained after arriving on a ferry from Liverpool on 21 March.

The animals were held because of issues with veterinary forms completed to comply with the NI Protocol.

The case is the first of its kind since the new arrangements came into force.

The ponies faced the prospect of being returned to Britain to be quarantined for a further 30 days.

'No virtue' in form-filling lesson

Amid concerns they could end up being slaughtered, Belfast Magistrates' Court granted owner Ashleigh Massey's appeal against being denied access to the ponies.

Ordering their release from a Department of Agriculture, Environmental and Rural Affairs (DAERA) facility at the docks, District Judge George Conner said: "I see no virtue in sending the animals back to Scotland or any other place on the mainland just to teach someone a lesson in form-filling."

Documentation was completed by experienced veterinary surgeon Phillipa Hughes, who has arranged the export of animals throughout Europe, after the horses were bought from a seller in Wales.

According to DAERA, whose officials denied the ponies' entry, there were serious omissions about the animals' place of origin, required for welfare and tracing purposes.

Giving evidence remotely, Ms Hughes accepted mistakes were made on the forms she was prepared to travel to amend, but insisted the horses were completely healthy and disease-free.

The Welsh-based vet told the court: "It falls on my head that these horses have been stuck in a port for weeks, not seeing the light of day and may have to travel back.

"This is the first time I have had any discrepancies in my paperwork and I can guarantee you it's the last."

Image caption,
The ponies were held at DAERA facilities at Belfast Port

'Not some rogue vet'

Ms Massey's barrister, Sean Mullan, contended that the department had acted irrationally and disproportionately.

"These are not animals coming in from the far east or Russia," he argued.

"This is not some rogue vet trying to flood the market with rogue animals. She is an experienced professional, and she has expressed her distress about them being in this predicament."

Ruling on the appeal, Judge Conner pointed out that the necessary information has now been provided.

"Requiring the movement of the animals to some port on the mainland is inappropriate and cannot be said to be in the interest of the animals," he said.

"If I'm wrong in this it should be looked at by Europe, and some scope allowed for the application of common sense."

With Ms Massey unable to afford the cost of sending the horses back, the judge also questioned what their ultimate fate would be.

"I'm left wondering would the ultimate position be that they would have to be slaughtered," he added.

"In this case I allow the appeal and order the release of the animals."

Outside court Ms Massey's solicitor, Patrick Higgins, called on Stormont, Westminster and Brussels to address issues he claimed the Northern Ireland public is now encountering on a daily basis.

"No matter what way people voted in the Brexit referendum, no one in Northern Ireland voted for this new additional level of bureaucracy being placed upon animals owners, hauliers and vets as a result of the Northern Ireland Protocol," Mr Higgins said.

"This additional bureaucracy is effecting the economy of Northern Ireland."

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