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Just Horsin' Around

Posted on the 12 July 2013 by Markwadsworth @Mark_Wadsworth
Colin Wiles in Inside Housing:
One of the frequent arguments put forward by countryside campaigners opposed to house building is that greenfield sites are needed for food production. According to this argument, new homes will endanger our ability to feed ourselves in the future...
But if you look at a detailed analysis of land use in England you soon realize that there is another aspect to this argument. Ninety per cent of England is countryside – around 12 million hectares - but only 8.9 million hectares, or 74 percent, is actually used for agriculture, and around half of this is grazing land, mainly occupied by sheep and cattle. However, some of it is also occupied by horses.
In fact, when you start to look at the statistics for the horse population some interesting figures emerge. 
The estimate for the number of horses in England ranges from 600,000 to 1.1 million but  no more than 20,000 of them are professional animals – i.e. involved in the horse-racing industry, eventing or dressage.
According to the British Equestrian Trade Association an estimated 3.5 million people ride each year and the vast majority are leisure riders - and 75 percent of them are women and children*. But there is also a problem with surplus and unwanted horses, with many reports of horses being dumped on land around the country.
According to the British Horse Industry Confederation, the average land grazed by each horse is one hectare. So even using a very conservative estimate, at least 600,000 hectares of England's countryside is occupied by horses, and probably a lot more. To put this into context, this is almost HALF of the of the 1.3 million hectares of England that is built upon. What's more, with the exception of a few rogue burgers, horses contribute precisely nothing to our food chain.
So just to be clear, horses occupy an area of land that is almost half the built up area of England. That is enough for 18 million homes! Most horses are grazed on land that may not be suitable for agriculture. In my previous blogs I have suggested that we need to build 3 million homes on greenfield sites over the next twenty years.
In other words, just one seventh of the land currently used by horses could be built upon and it would have no impact upon food production whatsoever. This nails the argument that loss of greenfield land means loss of food production.

* I'm not sure of the relevance of that statistic. Women and children (of both genders) make up nearly two-thirds of the population and are slightly over-represented among horse riders. We also  use a heck of a lot of land for golf courses and golf players are mainly men, so it all evens out.

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