MAF signals possible end to horse quarantine

Biosecurity officials have released a draft protocol for importing horses from Australia, which drops the present five weeks of quarantine required for horses.

quarantine The update on a version dated April 17 drops equine influenza requirements that included vaccination, testing, pre-export and post-arrival quarantine, on the grounds that it will only be approved once Australia gets its official clearance from equine flu.

"These conditions will only be finalised after recognition of Australia’s freedom from equine influenza following the World Animal Health Organisation guidelines," the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) said Friday.

A country is not considered free of flu until 12 months after the last reported case – Christmas Day for the last reported case in Queensland.

Equine flu arrived in Australia on a flight from Japan in August last year, triggering a chain of events that brought the multi-million dollar racing industry to its knees.

Bungled quarantine procedures allowed rapid spread of the virus through the horse population in NSW and Queensland, and much of Australia’s commercial horse sector went into lockdown, along with trans-Tasman movements.

In a normal year about 3,200 horses "cross the ditch" between New Zealand and Australia.

Imports resumed only in mid-May this year, but horses have to spend three weeks in quarantine in Australia and two weeks in New Zealand.

This is a problem for racehorse owners because, though International Racehorse Transport and New Zealand Bloodstock leased a farm near Karaka in a bid to have it approved as a quarantine site, there is a shortage of quarantine facilities in which horses can continue their training.

Dropping the quarantine period could make it practical for the racing industry to go back to shipping horses by sea – which often takes up to eight days, but can reduce by two-thirds the combined cost of sending a horse by air and keeping it in quarantine for five weeks.

Air freight and quarantine for a horse can cost $10,000, while companies such as Sea Horse Sea Freight have charged about $2,600 for importing horses from Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne.

The draft standard is open for public submissions until December 22, and the quarantine-free protocols could be in place by Australia Day, January 26, according to MAF.

But this may be too late for some racing interests who have wanted imports to be freed up in time for thoroughbreds to cross the Tasman for summer racing carnivals.

The Wellington Racing Club has said the Australian sprinter Takeover Target – who has been nominated for the $1 million Telegraph Handicap at Trentham – is unlikely to cross the Tasman unless the quarantine requirements are lifted. A total of 14 Australian sprinters have been nominated for the January 17 race.

This week the Environmental Risk Management Authority gave conditional approval for use of a genetically engineered equine flu vaccine in the event of an outbreak in New Zealand.