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Thoughts on DEFRA's single passport rule

As I came across a small group of Highland ponies recently looking down towards Gleneagles at the head of Glen Devon, I had to wonder why DEFRA has recently put forward a proposal to introduce a single passport issuing organisation for all equines.

Assuming that these are fully registered Highland ponies, their registration certificate informs of their ownership, their stud book record and breeding while their passports identify them. What more does the passports and zootechnics team from DEFRA require particularly of the letter which is all that really concerns them? Like all things ‘government’ we may never know what heralded this brainwave but for sure it has stirred up a hornets nest yet again at a time when the swarm just seemed to have settled. In some ways I can see that the current system doesn’t fit a neat bureaucratic package with such a large number of varied and a diverse range of passport issuing authorities (PIOs) however that was of DEFRA’s own making. Breed societies took up the challenge and aligned the issuing of passports with their stud book registering systems which makes sense and it would appear bizarre that this sensibility should now be challenged by DEFRA particularly when microchipping was added to the process. Despite the pitfalls of the microchip, it surely holds an important role in the whole identification process and perhaps the bureaucrats should have considered a central microchip provider as key to the process instead of a central PIO. Given that all existing PIOs hold records on computers, the pathway to identifying any equine through a central register of microchips is surely a matter of a few finger-tip operations away by anyone from DEFRA or elsewhere. It appears to me that breed societies with their established stud books are ideally suited to the issuing of passports in a single process operation for breeders and consequently owners; so why split these operations? Stud books will have to be maintained to standards laid down by the breeds so registration will continue to be a requirement for breeders. The registration paper of an equine will always provide the definitive reference to the breeding of that equine so will always be necessary for pedigree breeders. The Highland Pony Society is one organisation that has maintained a registration document as proof of breeding and ownership, something that the passport does guarantee. The fact that it is able to additionally produce a passport (including microchip details) makes life much easier for the breeder as well as reduces escalating costs. Arguably DEFRA’s argument for a single PIO does hold some water when it applies to all those equines which are ineligible for stud book registration; they currently hold passports issued by a host of commercial organisations which stepped in to support the passport system during its earliest days of implementation. Perhaps it is now time to bring all these equines under the umbrella of a single PIO. This would allow breed societies to continue to their job while accounting for all other equines under one organisation. Perhaps this sounds too much like common sense for its own good but hopefully common sense will prevail. Not mentioned so far has been the role of the heavily subsidised National Equine Database (NED), set up with the best of intentions but continuing to operate outwith the psyche of the British equestrian who doesn’t seem to be prepared to pay for access to the potentially useful information on breeding and performance that the database contains. Given that much of the information held by NED is generated by breed societies, surely that information could be accessed directly from them rather than go through this database? There is little doubt that times of governments cuts will see off any future subsidies to this organisation and the cynic in me questions whether or not DEFRA had NED in mind as the single PIO from the very beginning. It certainly would be a way of generating its operating costs while substantiating its existence which, in the long term, may have added value for equine breeders and competitors in a way reflected in continental Europe. In the meantime the hornets are obviously swarming over the DEFRA team and stinging. In the words of its recent communication to PIOs and interested parties, “… due to a number of significant and complex issues raised via comments/representation received about the proposals,  the meeting scheduled for January 24 with UK breed societies and passport issuing bodies was postponed till further notice.” Hopefully the hornets have sent them running back to their policy makers/think tanks but have we heard the last of it? I think not but at least the process had stalled in the meantime and hopefully many generations of foals yet to be born will gain passports through the current system. The average equine owner is oblivious to the pitfalls of registration and the issuing of passports so this topic is essentially a breeder’s one. It doesn’t make it any the less important and as a breeder myself I am fully aware of the problems outwith the obvious ones that beset the breeder. Sadly the number of ‘serious’ breeders is diminishing and the large studs are now few and far between. A great friend and well-known breeder of Welsh mountain ponies and cobs who made an impact over the years in Scotland was Mindy Mason who sadly died after a long illness last November. Her Tullibardine prefix headed the prize list over the years and provided lots of success for their new owners both in hand and under saddle. Like many horse breeders, Mindy’s interest in breeding began at an early age however it was the rabbit that claimed her early interest and needless to say the good ‘eye’ she gained over the years while competing with and judging rabbits held her in good stead during her pony breeding days. I was interested to read in the columns of The Scottish Farmer recently of the untimely death of West Lothian farmer, Tom Findlay, whose obituary informed the reader of his ability to judge all types of stock. I felt that I knew this remarkable man quite well although I only met him on one occasion. His retirement house at Dechmont with its adjoining little sheep paddocks was on my route to work in Livingston every day and I followed the fortunes of his well known flock of Shetland sheep throughout the breeding year. His system was simple but fascinating such that I stopped one day on my way home when he and his wife were handling his sheep by the side of the road. By this time well into his 80s, it was so interesting to chat with him about his breeding interest and he seemed equally interested to learn about my own stud. Despite the gulf between the two species, as breeders and enthusiasts for livestock we had so much in common. Like many pony breeders, I was truly sad to learn of the death of Ken Runcie and join the larger agricultural community in lamenting his loss. I first met Ken 40 years ago when he was one of my lecturers at Edinburgh University. Characteristically he would open his folder of lecture notes but fairly soon into the lesson he’d set them closed only to continue without reference to anything other than his vast experience and knowledge. Not only was he very knowledgeable in his field but he was a really nice guy, very approachable and modest in the extreme. During holiday times I used to work for him tagging lambs, weighing pigs or handling cattle as part of the university’s research work. When time allowed, he always found time not only to find out about how my studying was going but also to find out what was happening with the ponies. This working relationship turned into a friendship in later years and it was only a few months ago we exchanged notes on feeding ponies in the snow. I know that he would have been most interested in reading my last entry for this month’s column which concerns the thoughts and words of a young 13-year-old traveller whose advice on ‘Choosing a Horse’ is there for all to read in an interesting exhibition based on the work of travelling children entitled ‘Moving Lives – Our Words, Our Stories, Our Pictures’ currently showing at Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery. The writer begins with a very relevant point: “Firstly choose something for your size so that you can actually ride it!” Watching oversized riders on native ponies in the show ring and diminutive, short-legged riders on huge dressage horses they might want to reconsider their choices based on this sound advice. On the subject of heads, the point is made that: “You get horses with big heads, but they just look clumsy and you get ones with small heads and they just look stupid. You have to get one that’s just perfect: not too big and not too small.” On the subject of eyes: “I like the ones with different coloured eyes: one brown, the other blue, but nobody finds that important really.” (I wonder if this writer would like to reiterate this to a judges’ conference to hear what they would say on the matter since there is a high degree of bias against blue eye colouring in the show ring.) There is also some advice on the maintenance of a long mane: “We had a mare once and we got the mane to touch the ground. We used to put Bay Rum on the tips every day to keep it in good condition.” Meanwhile on temperament there is a surprising warning: “Some people like stallions but if you get a mare you have to keep her away from the stallions. The mares are harder to look after because they can be more temperamental.” What is the saying “out of the mouths of babes”?