By Paul Harris
She was drowning in mud when they found her — lying in a ditch, shivering with cold and waiting to die. The barbed wire that entangled her was cutting into her flesh. She was starving, skeletal and helpless.
By the time a vet reached her, the two-year-old chestnut mare probably had only minutes to live. She was caked in filth and struggling to breathe.
She was so weak she could barely find the strength to lift her nostrils out of the water-filled gully that was about to become her miserable grave. It took a mechanical digger to hoist the young shire to safety — then a desperate, long-running battle to save her life.
When she stumbled to her feet for the first time after being transported to a sanctuary, the pathetic sight reduced some of her rescuers to tears. All through the night, they nursed her, fed her, even said a prayer for her.
The name they gave her was Hope. Charity, it transpired, would take far longer to come to her aid.
The young vet who organised Hope’s rescue was so appalled when the RSPCA refused to prosecute the owner that she paid £1,500 to buy the horse in an 11th-hour attempt to save it.
Then she started a Facebook campaign to highlight alleged cruelty to Hope and the plight of 17 other shires, in a bid to ‘shame’ the animal charity into action.
Last night — as the campaign attracted worldwide interest and nearly 5,000 followers — there were fears that other horses on the Lancashire farmland could die in filthy, freezing conditions unless the RSPCA steps in quickly.
The Hope’s Cause internet page was started by newly-qualified equine vet Vikki Fowler, who was called to the farm at Edgworth, near Bolton, after Hope was spotted on Monday last week, struggling at the bottom of a steep, muddy bank on land used for grazing by breeder Phil Davies, 64.
A passing van driver saw the horse was in distress and alerted staff at a nearby equestrian centre. Vikki was so disturbed by what she found, she immediately called the RSPCA.
Minutes from death: Exhausted Hope is found in a water-filled gully, her legs entangled in barbed wire
Hope had fallen on the bank after pushing through a fence to find water. Now she was trapped by barbed wire wrapped around her hind legs, pointing head first into the gully.
Vikki’s first thought was that the mare’s condition was so bad she would have to be put down. But in a delicate and difficult rescue operation, equestrian centre staff used wire cutters to free her before wrapping a sling around her and heaving her up the bank with the digger.
Yesterday Vikki, 25, said: ‘It was clear that she had given up. She had no energy to fight or even save herself from drowning. She was resigned, waiting to die.
‘But as soon as she was lifted to standing she began to eat grass. It was clear that she wanted to live . . . so I decided to give her a chance.’
Once Hope had been hoisted to safety, the vet instructed Mr Davies to move her to a warm stable. But the horse was later seen slumped in a field.
Next day: Hope is now at least safe, but is still horrendously emaciated and caked in mud
Day three: Still pitifully weak, Hope's legs give way as she struggles to stand
She is moved to a paddock and lifted back on to her hooves by crane as concerned onlookers help out
Despite this, Vikki said, an RSPCA officer who inspected the animal said she was not in a desperate enough condition to warrant being taken away. Meanwhile, it would take six people four hours to wash the mud from her coat and coax her to stand unaided.
The Facebook page says: ‘Hope was dramatically emaciated, with the outline of bones clearly defined, pelvis protruding, rib cage visible through her hide. She was so covered in thick wet mud it was impossible to tell what colour she was.’
Shire horses are known for their gentle temperament and are usually stocky, deep chested and proud. Hope was dejected and frightened, and spent her first night lying on a stable floor, too weak to get to her feet.
Concerned that Hope and other horses were being neglected or mistreated, Vikki set up the Facebook page to underline their plight. She alleged that some were kept in a field that was ‘nothing more than a swamp’.
She accused the owner of being ‘completely delusional about the harm these animals are in’, saying she believed 11 of the 17 were in a ‘critical condition’.
Some had ‘no shelter and no access to water’, she claimed. Of the owner she said: ‘He is given chance after chance by the RSPCA, but there comes a point when something has to be done.’
Day four: A carrot feed and finally Hope manages to stand on her own two feet
Finally on her feet, albeit a bit wobbly, Hope is carefully nursed back to something resembling full health
Desperate: Some of the 17 other Shire horses kept at the farm in Edgworth, near Bolton
The RSPCA confirmed yesterday that officers had visited the field ‘repeatedly’ over the past two years but had never found evidence to support suggestions a crime had been committed. Last week one horse was said to have been ‘lean’, but others all had food and water and were in good health.
Officers did express concern over their field, which, a spokeswoman said, ‘is not a suitable environment for these animals’.
Yesterday Mr Davies denied allegations of cruelty or neglect and described the reports as ‘all lies’. But last night — as the internet campaign continued to grow — the RSPCA agreed to intervene.
It gave Mr Davies 24 hours to move the horses to better accommodation. If he fails to find them a new home or refuses, the charity said, he could be prosecuted.
RSPCA regional superintendent Martin Marsh said two officers visited the farm yesterday and decided that three of the horses were lame and must be stabled immediately.
Shire hell: Phil Davies and some of his other horses in the field deemed merely 'unsuitable' by the RSPCA
‘Though the horses have been moved to an improved environment the owner has been advised that it isn’t good enough,’ he said.
‘The owner has been given the opportunity to sign the horses over to the RSPCA but does not wish to do so. We are therefore meeting with him again to discuss plans for moving them to somewhere more suitable.
‘We would like to assure people that where there is veterinary evidence that an animal is suffering and it is in the public interest to do so, the RSPCA will look to prosecute those responsible.’
Vikki said: ‘The reaction across the world is evidence that thousands of people are increasingly concerned about the RSPCA’s attitude to this tragedy.’
Yesterday — clean, standing unaided and scoffing bales of hay — she was virtually unrecognisable as the horse that was dragged from the mud. She is not out of danger yet, but experts believe she was saved just in time and can make a full recovery.
Thursday, December 8, 2011
By Paul Harris