Free movement of horses top of the TBA's bulging Brexit in-tray
Martin Stevens finds out how preparation for Britain leaving the EU is going
Considering the British government doesn't appear to have a plan for Brexit, and ministers cannot even agree among themselves what form the country's withdrawal from the European Union will take – even though it is on course to happen only one year from Thursday – you could excuse the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association for being in a state of disarray.
Against a backdrop of such uncertainty, they might be forgiven for being unprepared for the calamitous consequences for its members of potential disruption to the smooth running of a bloodstock business interdependent on neighbouring countries in the EU.
As it happens, the powers that be at the TBA have been flitting from meeting to meeting – with internal committees dedicated to preparing for Brexit, their peers in breeding associations in Ireland and France and high-ranking politicians – and preparing an industry-led plan of action at the request of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
The result is that TBA chairman Julian Richmond-Watson and chief executive Claire Sheppard are remarkably confident, though not complacent, about the eventual effects of Brexit on bloodstock.
“We've met twice with Defra this year and had very positive meetings with them,” says Sheppard. “We've provided them with a list of legislation they need to review and the actions they need to take. They're well briefed.
“Defra have been very encouraging with their engagement, and Lord Gardiner [parliamentary under-secretary of state for rural affairs and biosecurity at the department] singled out the thoroughbred industry and the need to replace the Tripartite Agreement in his speech at the recent National Equine Forum. We're meeting him again soon.”
“We've definitely got through to the people that matter,” adds Richmond-Watson. “Both Michael Creed [Ireland's minister for agriculture, food and the marine] and Phil Hogan [the European commissioner for agriculture and rural development] have spoken to Michael Gove [Britain's secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs] in recent weeks specifically about bloodstock, so we've got ourselves to the top of their radar. They understand the size and importance of our industry, and the risks associated with Brexit.”
The three main areas of risk the industry's Brexit steering group, chaired by Richmond-Watson, have identified are the free movement of thoroughbreds within Europe; common protocols on achieving the highest standards of horse health across the continent, taking in transport, ID policies and so on; and the supply of people to work in the racing and bloodstock industries.
Ensuring equine movement continues not to be curbed is the issue that has preoccupied horse owners in Britain, Ireland and France, as the Tripartite Agreement that guaranteed that freedom will evaporate along with Britain's membership of the EU.
Why it is top of the to-do list is explained by figures provided by Weatherbys. Under the TPA in 2016, 7,500 thoroughbreds travelled to Britain from Ireland and 2,500 in the opposite direction. Some 2,856 went from France to Britain and 2,134 from Britain to France, while 2,354 went from France to Ireland and 2,780 the other way. Crucially, nearly all journeys between those two countries were made via Britain.
In the short-term, it is good news on that subject according to Sheppard.
“The news last week that a transition agreement will hopefully be approved in the near future is a positive,” she says. “That would take us through to the end of 2020. Horse movement issues are expressly included in the transition agreement. That gives us confidence that existing arrangements for free movement of horses will at least carry on through the transition period.
“Parallel to that, we're developing our plans for the future. There will need to be a digital solution and we'll have to record movements more than we do now, particularly between Ireland and the UK where at the moment you don't have to log them. We think there are practical solutions the industry can deliver for Defra.”
Sheppard says a spec is being developed with Weatherbys for a digital log of horse movements, with input from a specialist transport committee that comprises shippers, breeders and other practitioners.
As Richmond-Watson points out, a digital log would only work if the EU comes up with a database that dovetails with it.
“There has to be a reciprocal arrangement,” he says. “I think sometimes there's a feeling that the EU are telling us what to do all the time, but Defra and ourselves will come up with a scheme where we accept horses in and we'll need to have the system mirrored. At the point of departure we have the same rules, so it shouldn't be a problem.”
“There's already an EU-wide database that logs movements between the UK and France, so there are existing systems we could plug into or improve,” adds Sheppard.
The key question, then: should breeders be panicked about the future transport of horses between Britain, Ireland and France?
“No, there's good will in every direction to make free movement happen,” Richmond-Watson says.
Protectionism not on agenda
One sector that might feel a little unease is those who deal in geldings, such as vendors of store horses in Ireland.
When the UK leaves the single market and the customs union, trade may revert to being conducted under World Trade Organisation rules. While there are currently no tariffs on 'pure-bred breeding animals', it is possible the standard WTO tariff of 11.5 per cent might be applied to gelded horses imported into Britain.
On the sensitive subject of whether the TBA would seek to gain any advantage from the Brexit process for British breeders at the expense of Ireland and France, Richmond-Watson says: “It would only come if there was a reciprocal problem on the other side, but we're not looking at that. From a racing point of view, the idea of making it harder for runners to come here doesn't seem to be a good idea.
“What there is, is an opportunity to support our breeding industry more, but that is an internal issue more than an external one.”
“We need those imported horses to support the current level of the fixture list,” adds Sheppard. “We're looking for more proactive measures to support British breeders rather than keeping other people out.”
Returning to that potential tariff on the import of geldings, Richmond-Watson says: “It is not exercising us terribly. I don't feel it's high on our priority list.”
Keeping up standards
The second priority in Brexit preparations, achieving high health status for thoroughbreds, has already been felt by British breeders this year as an early measure implemented has been the requirement to notify Weatherbys of the birth of a foal within 30 days of its arrival.
“We will need to be at least the same, if not better, than EU standards,” says Richmond-Watson. “In that respect it's interesting that Ireland hasn't yet caught up with 30-day notification.
“Traceability will be important. That's why you need an electronic passporting system. It's no good having that if the horse isn't registered somewhere. Take mares and foals walking into studs across the Irish Sea, for example; the foal will have to exist somewhere.”
As regards the staffing issue, Sheppard says: “A joint submission was made by racing and breeding to the Migration Advisory Committee's call for evidence. We're positioning racing and breeding as skilled industries, as obviously you couldn't just walk in off the street to work with horses.
“Immigration is of course a hot potato but we're pushing for security on the subject”.
“Those skills have to be recognised,” says Richmond-Watson in agreement. “We don't know what's going to come. Presumably there'll be a visa system with immigrants having to fulfil certain criteria. We're waiting to hear from government.”
Any other business?
Constant meetings, grappling with opaque EU directives, producing reports for government; the Brexit vote has dumped a huge pile of paperwork in the TBA's in-tray. It makes you wonder how the organisation is managing its many other functions.
“It's not disrupting anything, it's an extra workload,” says Richmond-Watson. “But it's critical to our members. The free movement of horses between here, France and Ireland is so important we'd be negligent if we weren't working on it.
“We're managing and we've got a good group which we're chairing and we've got to go in first. But we have good support from the BHA and Weatherbys who are also in the front line, and good sub-groups.
“This is a collective effort by the industry, drawing on other people who have good experience to help carry the load.”
For the record, the TBA is also working on its strategy for growth for the BHA, with proposals expected to be published mid-year, as well as updating the economic impact study first conducted four years ago.
Furthermore, it is still attempting to solve the stud staffing crisis that Richmond-Watson and Sheppard admit is the one issue that causes its members more anguish than any other at the moment.
But for now it is Brexit that has muscled its way to the head of the agenda, and in particular maintaining free movement of horses.
“The number one priority is the successor to the TPA, and it has to be a 27-nation agreement,” says Richmond-Watson. “The idea that we can have another agreement between three countries won't be stomached.”
There is no room for complacency on a subject that threatens to bring the breeding industry in western Europe to a grinding halt.
“At the moment Brexit is something happening over there. Breeders see it on the news every night and one or two have made comments to us about it, but until it happens they might not think about it,” says Richmond-Watson. “Well, they'd think about it when they needed to move a mare in the future and found they couldn't.”
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