Ireland is famous for its love of horses and the thoroughbreds raised on its verdant hills. During the boom years, when high-tech companies flocked to the "Celtic Tiger" and the construction industry overdosed on cheap loans, pet horses became a popular luxury item. Tens of thousands were purchased for steeplechases, hunts or other equestrian events. For many people a horse was a sign of affluence, akin to an expensive car or a boat.
But the financial crisis in 2008, which hit Ireland worse than most overheated European economies, caused the Irish economy to contract by a spectacular 15%. By late 2010, and after much procrastination, Ireland was finally cajoled into accepting a US $ 90 billion international bailout package and announced spending cuts and tax increases to the tune of US $ 20. As in any economic crisis, the first things people give up on are unnecessary luxuries. Ireland's unusually large population of private horses, many of them kept in gardens and on private land, have borne the brunt of these domestic cutbacks. Since their upkeep costs around US $ 40 per day, more and more horses are being abandoned on public land to fend for themselves on meagre winter grass. Most contract diseases and ultimately die of starvation.
The problem has reached drastic proportions. Though all private horses are supposed to be registered and electronically tagged, these laws have only been sporadically enforced. It is therefore almost impossible to know how many horses have been abandoned. Joe Collins, president of the Veterinary Council of Ireland, estimates that there are now some 10 000 to 20 000 "surplus horses" roaming the irish countryside, often straying into urban areas. In some cities, youngsters joy-riding horses around town centres have become a common, and unwelcome, sight.
The Dunsink Tip, a former landfill site on the outskirts of Dublin, is now the end of the road for many of the capital's roaming horses. Animal welfare inspectors visit the site regularly, administering a bullet to the head to the weakest animals with little prospect of survival. The slightly stronger ones are taken to shelters but local animal welfare societies have limited budgets and not enough space to house such large animals so many of the horses need to be put down.
Piotr Malecki spent a few days with a group of young Dubliners who have adopted some of the healthier ponies as their own.
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