Development land: fly-grazing horses delaying sales

The grass is greener

17 August 2016

Fly-grazing horses are on the increase and they can delay the sale of development land, says Sophie Henwood

Delays when selling or purchasing properties are frustrating for buyers and sellers. The last thing either party wants to discover is a horse unexpectedly grazing on the site. But this is what faced us recently when 2 horses were found on our client’s development plot on the day of completion. The practice, known as fly-grazing, sees chancers attempting to graze their horses on private or public land without the landowner’s permission.

Fly-grazing is becoming widespread throughout the UK, with charities estimating that more than 3,000 horses are fly-grazed in England. This is linked to the falling cost of buying a horse and the increasing expense of keeping them. It is not only of concern for the welfare of horses, however, but also to landowners particularly at the time of a sale, when they need to give their purchasers vacant possession. Consequently, sellers should be vigilant, and buyers should instruct surveyors to look for signs of horses at the property on their first inspection.

Where an unauthorised horse is found on site, delays can be avoided at completion by following proper procedure.

Until May 2015, the legal ‘teeth’ for dealing with fly-grazing lacked an adequate bite. But this situation has since changed. If a private landowner discovers an unauthorised horse on their property, the procedure to remove the horse is as follows.

  1. The horse may be detained by the landowner. While the horse is being held in this way, it must be given adequate food and water.
  2. Within 24 hours of detaining the horse, a landowner must give notice of the detention to the officer in charge of the local police station, and if the person detaining the horse knows to whom it belongs, they must also be given notice.
  3. The right to detain the horse ceases if, within 96 hours of holding it, the person entitled to possession of the horse claims it and pays enough money to satisfy any claim made by the landowner for damage done by the horse to the land or to the landowner’s property, and in respect of any expenses that the landowner has incurred in keeping the horse.
  4. If the horse is still held by the landowner after 96 hours (excluding weekends and bank holidays), ownership of the horse passes to the landowner, who is then entitled to dispose of it. Options include giving it to charity, arranging for it to be put down or selling it on.

This legislation works well where horses are well cared for and have a considerable resale value. The horse owners are unlikely to want to lose their horse, and are likely to remove it without further trouble once contacted.

However, the legislation does not work so well where the horse is dumped on the land, is uncared for or has little resale value. The landowner may find that the only way to dispose of it is by paying for it to be humanely euthanised. This is both an economic and moral burden to the landowner.

If the landowner is not prepared to put the horse down, they may have to ensure that the animal is in a suitable condition for sale at an auction. The landowner may then find that the original horse owner buys the horse back at a fraction of the cost they would have paid the landowner for keeping the horse and any damage done to the property.

The horse owner could even return the horse to the field in which it was fly-grazing and the whole cycle would begin again.

Historically, it was common for the horse owner simply to buy back their horses at auction. But now that the landowner can choose how to dispose of the horse, the horse owner may not take such a risk.

The new legislation goes some way to dealing with fly-grazing, but there is room for the legal teeth to be sharpened further.

Sophie Henwood is a solicitor in the Commercial Property team at law firm Boodle Hatfield

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