Equine litter

No, I’m not talking about half-eaten carrots and sugar-lumps carelessly discarded around the stables. I’m referring to an incident in Northern Ireland earlier this month in which the tragedy of the death of 4 horses descended into farce and gave full meaning to August’s traditional label in the media of “the silly season”.

The story starts with 4 horses that were running loose on the Newry bypass. Unfortunately, the horses were involved in a collision with a car driven by a local man. Of the 4 horses – poor things – 2 were killed instantly and 2 were “euthanised” by a vet who was subsequently called to the scene (”euthanised” ?? well, that is the word used in the Horse and Hound’s account of the incident; it’s not a word I have come across before and smacks of that insidiously ever-growing practice of dispensing with good old Anglo-Saxon words like “put down” and fabricating words that euphemise [touché !] the true meaning of what is being said).

Anyway, I digress. The point of this horse story is that the rescue services were left with 4 dead horses on the main road. As you might expect, horses being fairly weighty animals whose carcases are not susceptible to being easily rolled out of the way, a specialist removal firm was called in to clear the highway of these noble beasts’ bodies and they did their job for the modest price of £500 and submitted their bill.

So far, in the circumstances, so good. But this is where it turns silly. The Roads Service, to whom the £500 clearance bill was submitted, must have been feeling in particularly parsimonious mood at the time. They clearly felt determined that someone else should foot the bill and so set their legal department’s best minds onto the case. The ingenious solution that they came up with was that – and how could we possibly have come to any conclusion other than this ? – the horse carcases were litter. And, of course, litter on a road of that classification is the responsibility not of the Roads Service but of the local council. So the £500 bill was passed on to Newry and Mourne council who, naturally enough, objected to the request to pay it.

I rather wish that the late and immensely admirable Lord Denning (one of the more famous Masters of the Rolls) had been around to comment on this case – he had the most wonderful knack of making eloquent and eminently comprehensible legal pronouncements with reference to common sense principals that all of us can relate to. In his absence, I can quote only the Sinn Fein Mayor of Newry and Mourne who commented that he found it “fairly distressing” that dead horses should be classified in the same way as burger wrappers. In any case, part of our understanding of the word “litter” is that it is something negligently (and sometimes deliberately) left behind but which the litterer should have deposited somewhere else. The argument used by the Roads Service was that smaller dead animals found on the highway (we nowadays call them “road kill”) are litter, so these horses must also be so classified.

Wherever you believe that the common sense view lies in this case, I feel confident that most of us would simply take the view “just get on with it and sort it out”. Such was the view of a spokesman from the Highways Agency in England who commented : “We certainly wouldn’t classify dead horses as litter. We would arrange for their appropriate removal.”.

So, back to the silly season and a little piece of gentle advice to those in the public eye. When August comes along, the press are going to be a bit short of news because all the politicians are on holiday. So, in August, please try hard not to do or say anything that is at all likely to be swooped upon by a news-deprived press. If you do, it may be blown out of all proportion and you may find that you are under the spotlight for something that, at almost any other time of year, wouldn’t earn so much as a column millimetre.

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