Equine opportunities

Roger Moss meets a family who settled in Vienne for a quieter lifestyle and have discovered that their new life is anything but…

As anyone who has ever settled in rural France for a simpler, more relaxed way of life will know, fate sometimes has other plans. This was definitely the case for Jon and Kathryn Dobson who moved with their three children, then aged between one and five, to Poitou-Charentes for a change of lifestyle.

Home in their case was a modest country ch�teau dating from the sixteenth century, complete with stables, a couple of noble towers and around 9 hectares of land. It sounded idyllic on paper, but there was a downside: it had stood virtually empty and unloved for five years, awaiting a buyer with the vision and commitment needed to restore it.

Jon and Kathryn certainly fitted the bill. Jon had worked in the UK financial market and Kathryn in international marketing. When she received a posting to Geneva they took a deep breath and moved from Northumberland to northeastern France, close to the border with Switzerland. Jon then combined house restoration with caring for the children, while Kathryn commuted daily to a high-powered job in Geneva.

Eventually, though, the time came for a change of lifestyle. The work was demanding and involved a huge amount of travel,’ recalls Kathryn.I was missing seeing the children growing up, who at the time were five, three and one.’

Jon also had a longstanding dream of running a smallholding, so began looking for potential locations in Limousin, for its farming heritage, before finding just what they were after further west in southern Vienne. We wanted a house with land but not too far from civilisation, and this ticked all the boxes, even if we do miss being able to ski each weekend!’

The house was a complete wreck so Jon spent 6 months getting things habitable while the house near Geneva was being sold. Taking on a place of this size was always going to be pretty major,’ says Kathryn. We gave ourselves a year to work on it pretty much full time before thinking about anything else.’

Most Read

One of the first things they did was to investigate the possibility of having their land (half of which is woodland) designated as a nature reserve. In what turned out to be a considerable stroke of good fortune, they discovered a longstanding agreement to this effect, which merely required reinstating; then Jon, who had also long dreamed of having working horses, began looking for suitable candidates with some help from horse expert Trina Summerfield.

The search eventually led them to a farm in Loir-et-Cher that had several horses for sale, which would otherwise be destined for the meat trade. When they got there, Jon and Trina were shocked not only to discover horses, ponies and donkeys that had been raised in Spain and were being fattened before being trucked to Southern Italy for slaughter, but also by the brutality of conditions on the farm.

Livestock transport So they returned home with a Spanish gelding for Trina and a pregnant Breton mare plus an eightmonth- old donkey for us,’ recalls Kathryn. Our two were due to go for meat in Italy, where it’s perfectly legal for pregnant mares to be slaughtered and foal meat is considered a particular delicacy.’ Jon and Kathryn wondered why this long-distance transport of live animals was taking place and discovered animals also being brought into France from other countries including Poland and Romania.

Ten thousand horses pass through France each year en route for slaughter in the meat trade. We weren’t particularly horsey people, but we knew that we had uncovered a major animal welfare issue.’

It didn’t take too long to discover the underlying cause: Italian consumers believe that fresh horse meat tastes better than frozen, so animals aren’t slaughtered until they actually reach Italy and the meat can be labelled as having been produced in Italy’. Convinced that something had to change, Jon and Kathryn joined forces with Trina and local horse artist Jenny Lupton to form Equine Rescue France, a not-for-profit association that rescues some of the worst casualties of neglect or abuse locally and campaigns for welfare changes.

But not all animals in the meat chain can be saved, as there is a growing demand for horse meat. As Kathryn observes ruefully: After undertaking a rescue ourselves, we quickly realised that other animals simply take their place in the supply chain. There are now websites out there showing pictures of sad animals about to go to slaughter tomorrow, which you can save if you buy them for around �900. The prices are going up and the farm owners now also buy in animals specifically for rescue, having learnt what will appeal to people most. So a whole new market has developed alongside the old one.

Needless suffering The only answer, then, is to raise public awareness of the harsh realities of live animal transit and to campaign for the reforms that might finally end it through the use of local slaughterhouses. Not that we don’t eat meat ourselves,’ says Kathryn. But we do want to know that the meat we eat has been raised and slaughtered humanely, and without needless suffering. So we do what we can to campaign and help enforce the EU welfare laws that are already in place.’

While the traditional British love of animals underpins the growing support for Equine Rescue France’s efforts, the good work has not gone unnoticed in the local community. In fact, several French horse owners faced with the task of giving up their much-loved animals have specifically asked the Dobsons for their help, aware that British families will offer a caring home.

So far, then, their new life in deepest France has turned out to be anything but dull for Jon and Kathryn, and it has become even less so thanks to the contacts they have made with other British �migr� families. As anticipated, the process of slotting their young children into the French education system was relatively painless, and happily they have all managed to pick up their new language surprisingly rapidly.

But the downside for expat children like the Dobsons’ is that, despite the obvious benefits, as children become integrated into a whole new culture there’s a real danger that they will gradually lose touch with the finer points of their maternal language, particularly the written word.

Faced with this situation, Kathryn and a group of like-minded parents founded Accents, which runs regular English teaching classes in the towns of Civray (Vienne) and Jarnac (Charente). My youngest children have never been to school in the UK so it’s really important that they learn to write and spell in English, alongside French. But the setting up of the classes has certainly been challenging…’ says Kathryn. Despite which, things seem to be going well, according to 11-year-old Jenny, Emily (9) and Sarah (7).

As for their parents, Jon is still enthusiastically immersed in the restoration of the house: Inside it’s about 80 per cent completed now, so once we’re through the winter I can finally get around to doing some fairly major jobs outside.’ His new life obviously suits him, as he affirms: I’m perfectly happy to stay here and do things like working on the vegetable garden and caring for all the animals. We’ve just got our first beehives, and created a series of paths in the woods, so the children and their friends can enjoy themselves and learn more about nature.’

The whole family’s enthusiasm for their surroundings is infectious, and understandable. As I bid them farewell and roll down the tree-lined driveway towards the fertile fields of Vienne I catch a final glimpse in the mirror of the house and its two towers silhouetted against a steely-blue winter sky. Quite a place to be able to call home…

Fact file Equine Rescue in France - www.equinerescuefrance.org World Society for the Protection of Animals - www.wspa.org.ukWorld Horse Welfare - www.worldhorsewelfare.orgACCENTS - www.accents-asso.fr

Animal rescue: proceed with cautionRescuing a forlorn, hopeless animal and giving it a loving home is a wonderful thing, but it’s essential for potential rescuers to be aware that many of the horses that enter the meat trade (including those advertised for rescue) are in fact wild and totally unused to being handled. They are also large and powerful creatures, can be dangerous without proper training and require patience and dedication. Those who discover this to their cost often sell on an unsuitable animal, which then re-enters the very meat trade from which it had been saved. When in doubt get specialist advice.