Officials from the Department of Agriculture have expressed surprise at the way racehorses appeared to be slaughtered in footage shown on the BBC's Panorama programme last night.

The documentary featured covert footage filmed inside one of the UK's biggest abattoirs, which appeared to show rules surrounding the slaughter of horses being breached.

It also claimed that at least 4,000 racehorses have been slaughtered in abattoirs since 2019, with "most, but not all" trained in Ireland.

Appearing before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Dr Michael Sheahan, Director of Veterinary Operations at the Department of Agriculture, told members that he found the documentary "surprising" for many reasons.

"For the avoidance of any doubt, that is certainly not something that happens here," Dr Sheahan told members.

He said that the footage appeared to show horses being led into an antechamber before being shot by a slaughterman with a rifle.

In some cases, they were shot at from close range, while the slaughterman held onto the horse with another hand, he said. In other cases, they were shot at from a distance, the committee heard.

Dr Sheahan expressed concern over the method of slaughter, explaining that in Ireland, horses are stunned before they are killed.

The committee heard that there were once four slaughter plants operating in Ireland, but today there is one.

There are two approved plants, but one is out of action due to a fire.

"We're very satisfied with the way things operate in the slaughter plants," Dr Sheahan told TDs and Senators on the committee.

'No inkling'

Surprise was also expressed by Dr Kevin Smyth, Assistant Secretary General at the department.

Dr Smyth told Senator Rónán Mullen that he "knew nothing about this" method of slaughter until he saw it on television last night. "I had no inkling," he said.

Committee Chair Jackie Cahill expressed concern around the traceability of horses.

Mr Cahill told the committee that he could not understand why the movements of horses in Ireland were not recorded in a similar way to cattle.

He said that the issues that arose in the Panorama documentary last night might have been avoided if such monitoring was in place.

Dr Sheahan agreed that the traceability of horses in Ireland is nowhere near as good as it is in the cattle sector, which he said is among the best systems in the world.

He said that the tracing of cattle in IIreland was a "Rolls Royce system", but warned that it took 50 years to get to that point.

Dr Sheahan said that there have been improvements in the tracing of horses, and he expects this to continue.

Plans for an equine census by the end of the year are in place, which Dr Sheahan described as "another step" in the journey towards improving traceability standards.

Wexford TD Paul Kehoe asked how Ireland compared to other countries when it came to the traceability of horses.

He was told by Dr Sheahan that the Irish system is "broadly similar" to the British and French system, but not as good as Hong Kong's.

However, Dr Sheahan cautioned that Hong Kong is a very different place to Ireland and there would not be the same level of movement.

Senator Mullen told members that he believed that a deep love of horses was the source of people's enjoyment of racing.

However, he was concerned that a picture was starting to emerge in recent times that suggests that there are people in the industry "who don't love horses" and see them as "machines".