A POLICE operation which reduced the number of stray horses in a town by 75 per cent – saving 53 days of officers' time – has received national recognition.

Operation Strawberry was launched by Bishop Auckland police in response to concerns about hundreds of horses which caused havoc for residents.

Neighbourhood Inspector Andy Reeves said officers dealt with at least three horse-related incidents a day and the animals caused accidents by wandering into the road and even into houses.

In 2018, there were more than 900 reports of illegal fly-grazing or horses on the roads in the area, but with no way to trace the owners, the team often struggled to identify offenders.

To combat the problem, Insp Reeves and his team used the Control of Horses Act 2015 to enforce mandatory microchipping and horse passports and owners of stray horses were charged to recover their animals after officers took them off the streets. Community protection warnings and notices giving police powers to restrict offenders in certain actions were used, and in November 2018 the beat team worked with other agencies to launch Operation Strawberry – a targeted night of action which saw 50 officers and staff take 24 horses off illegal sites.

As a result, the number of incidents dropped from 147 in December 2017 to 16 in September 2019.

The reduction has saved 53 days – the equivalent of 426 hours – of police time.

The main offenders have also been targeted, with one person being given a four-month suspended prison sentence for fly-grazing.

The operation has now been recognised as best practice by the National Equine Crime Delivery Priority Group and was cited at the World Horse Welfare’s 2019 conference, which was held last week and live-streamed globally with its president, HRH Princess Anne also in attendance.

Inspector Dave Smith, from Kent Police, is chairman of the National Equine Crime Priority Delivery Group and he praised the project at the conference.

He said: “The World Horse Welfare Conference was an excellent event to showcase the effective partnership work that is being done in England and Wales.

“Congratulations to Andy and the Durham partnership for this outstanding work in reducing fly-grazing and neglect”.

Insp Reeves presented the project at the force’s annual Problem Orientated Partnerships (POP) conference last month, where it was one of 12 finalists.

He said: “The community was blighted by these horses and it was not only a problem for residents, but drained our resources every time we had to deal with an incident. I’m delighted that we were able to work together with our partners to combat this issue and improve the lives of those in our communities.

“This is not the end of Operation Strawberry – all horses now have to have a passport and be microchipped to comply with The Control of Horses Act 2015 and random checks will be commencing. Offenders you have been warned.”

For information about a microchipping event, email the Bishop Auckland Neighbourhood Policing Team at BishopBeatGroup@durham.pnn.police.uk and to report incidents of fly-grazing call Crimestoppers on 0800-555111.