The unintended consequences of import and export controls

With the commencement of border checks on 30th April, much of the focus has been on the possible effects of food inflation, smuggling and road chaos. But the shockwaves have rippled into every sector of the economy and in North Shropshire the issue is illustrated perfectly by the impact on the Sport Horse sector.

For the uninitiated, the Sport Horse sector relates to animals that are involved in show jumping and eventing, and their breeding is a thriving industry. The animals make regular trips to Europe to compete and burnish both their competition and breeding credentials, while unlike thoroughbred race horses, 95% of mares in this sector are artificially inseminated.

This is where the post-Brexit red tape of importing and exporting causes significant problems. Each time a horse travels to Europe and back, it must be both exported and reimported. It requires health certificates and a veterinary check – costing hundreds of pounds per trip.

Of course bio-security is of fundamental importance, and we must be vigilant to keep diseases out of the UK wherever possible. But these horses are high-health animals that are continuously monitored and they are already required to produce significant amounts of documentation to compete with other horses. There is considerable scope to streamline the process and reduce both the cost and complexity.

The breeding process is also badly affected by the new control regime. Germinal products (chilled semen) are considered to be high risk and require extensive border checks. But their lifespan is extremely short. Once the semen is collected, there is only about 48 hours to get it to the mare. The frozen alternative is significantly inferior. International breeding is an important element of ensuring gene-pool diversity, meaning these products are regularly transported across Europe.

Historically, health documentation checks were carried out by the inseminating vet, and this was successful. There are no recorded incidents of disease being introduced in this way. DEFRA’s post-Brexit proposal involved import documentation and health checks at the border-control point. The logistics of this couldn’t be achieved in the 48-hour window, and peak breeding season started on 1st May.

Remember, these are high-health animals. Stallions are kept in quarantine for 30 days, monitored and tested before semen is collected. The process could easily be streamlined without increasing the biosecurity risk. In fact, following a meeting with myself, my constituent and the British Horse Council, DEFRA agreed to pilot a process where the new checks are carried out by the inseminating vet. But this was an 11th hour reprieve and typical of the chaos which has surrounded the implementation of controls.

On the export side, little progress has been made. While DEFRA has been willing to engage, the Department for Industry and Trade seems largely oblivious to the impact of such controls, and this means that UK exporters are now at a significant disadvantage in Europe. There are worrying signs that UK breeders will consider moving to Northern Europe to get around the cost and red-tape, and that European breeders and trainers of both sport and race horses are less willing to bring their animals to the UK. This is a bad sign both for race horse breeding (the horses must be naturally covered) and UK competitions.

There are steps that could be taken to streamline the process. The UK could join the European TRACES database (used by 90 countries across the world), where health and travel information is readily and digitally available. This would reduce costs and ensure that British and European horses are verifiably held to the same health standards.

There are currently around 70 passport issuing bodies in the UK, feeding into a central database. This leads to variable quality of information. Streamlining this database is on DEFRA’s ‘to do’ list, but the statutory instrument needed to make it a reality has been repeatedly delayed. There’s no deadline for getting this done.

The sport horse industry is worth £8 billion to the UK, and there are thriving businesses hidden away in the countryside driving a high degree of excellence. Their challenges illustrate how the devil in the detail of these new rules can cause real operational difficulty, and how in the real world the implementation of the new regime has been chaotic. It’s high time that DEFRA and DBT worked together to find an import and export regime that backs British businesses instead of undermining them.

Helen Morgan MP

Helen Morgan is the Liberal Democrat MP for North Shropshire and was elected in 2021.