A new horse sanctuary has opened at Aylsham as an animal charity expands in a bid to cope with a galloping rise in the number of abandonments fuelled by the recession.

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Tough economic times mean more and more owners are walking away from their horses because they can no longer afford rising feed, farrier, vet and bedding costs.

Norfolk-based Redwings is the country’s largest horse sanctuary, operating nine sites from its Hapton headquarters in the south of the county - looking after 1,250 animals - which is set to rise to 1,300 next year.

Since 2009 the annual number of calls about abandoned horses to its welfare helpline has soared from 160 to more than 720 - and this year it has also received a further 1,100 requests to re-home horses.

It says horses which used to cost £100 at market can now be bought at “cheaper than guinea pig” prices of £5 - but people needed to realise the animal cost £3,000 in basic maintenance and a vet bill for something like colic could be £5,000.

Redwings has recently joined with other equine and welfare charities including the RSPCA to highlight the growing crisis in a report to Parliament. It is encouraging MPs to take action over issues such as continued imports into a flooded market, but also trying to prevent abandonments by advice to horse owners on ways to keep down costs, such as teaming up with others to bulk buy supplies and services.

And to cope with rising demand, and to raise its public profile, the charity now has a sanctuary and visitor centre on the outskirts of Aylsham.

It has taken a former children’s playbarn with seven acres of land, and added another 240 acres to house 33 horses and ponies, with more, including donkeys, to follow later.

The main building houses a café and shop, with a picture window overlooking the once forlorn horses happily grazing in their fields.

Some of the horses at the Aylsham sanctuary

All the horses at the sanctuary have sad stories with happy endings. Among them are:

Gulliver - who was rescued, with his mother, when two days old. Because the mare was so thin, he developed health problems including trouble with his “back knees” and a neurological condition called “wobblers”.

Amigo - rescued from an old coalyard in Wakefield who had been poisoned, has major liver problems and has to wear a coat in strong sunlight

Cookie - one of the 72 horses from the high profile rescue raid in Amersham in 2008 who was very skinny and timid - but is now well and calm enough to be one of the horses groomed by children.

The Gangsters - seven spirited Shetland pony stallions rescued after their owners deatrh in Birmingham including two called Ronnie and Reggie, and another called Babyface Nelson.

An education centre is also under way, and links are being forged with youth and community groups.

Charity chief executive Lynn Cutress said the dynamics of its work was changing with the increasing number of abandonments. They now made up the majority of its work, which used to be dominated by ill treatment and neglect.

It faced the same pressure on costs, which was combined with an expected drop in donations being suffered by other charities just when their work was in higher demand.

Redwings was using its reserves but adding the Aylsham centre would also tell more people about its work, hopefully raising profile and funds. It is also north Norfolk homecoming for the charity which began at Frettenham in 1984 before it moved to Hapton in 2001.

“We bought Aylsham two years ago, and have spent the past 10 month changing the farmland from potatoes and peas to grazing, adding fencing and roadways,” she explained.

The charity’s only other Norfolk visitor centre is at Caldecott near Great Yarmouth. Aylsham has the capacity to match its 30,000 visitors a year.

The horses in the sanctuaries are there because they need special care or cannot be ridden - but the charity has another 500 living with an army guardians, which it is also seeking to increase.

The site also includes chances for children to have a go at grooming horses, and there are two nature walks to ponds and woods.

Admission is free, with income from shop cafe and signing up people to adopt horses.

Redwings’ new Aylsham site has created six new jobs, adding to the 230 already employed by the charity, 180 of which are grooms. Mrs Cutress said more workers could be hired as the centre took off. Some of the land was still be farmed by tenants, providing another income stream, until it was needed for grazing more horses.

The new Redwings Sanctuary is at Spa Lane, Aylsham, just off the A140 junction at Henry Page Road, NR11 6UE. It is open 9.30am to 3.30pm Friday to Monday, with group visits available on other days by appointment. Call 01263 732243, email info@redwings.co.uk or visit www.redwings.org.uk.

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