HORSE owners at Hicks Farm have an “extremely fair” amount of time to find alternative homes for their animals, Bournemouth council says.

The owners of the 35 horses on the council-owned site in Throop Road – which is earmarked to become a community farm and visitors’ centre – were left devastated when told they must move their animals by December.

Some told the Echo they would have to sell them or put them down as a result, thanks to a lack of alternative stabling.

They said the council had told them last year that horses would “always be welcome” on site, and that no changes were planned for several years.

However, council head of parks development Michael Rowland said environmental regulations had forced the borough to bring forward its plans, and the horse owners would have to cope.

“In the future we may be able to accommodate some horses, but certainly not 35,” he said.

“At the moment we do not know how many we could accommodate. There is no simple way of discriminating between users when reducing numbers.

“We will need to undertake work on the buildings, demolishing some and having a safe working areas for others.

“It would not be safe to have horses and owners on a construction site.

“The legal agreement that we have with our tenant is short term and has been reflected in his agreements with horse owners. By giving 10 months’ notice our tenant has been extremely fair.”

He said the council would “advise of any land we hear of” but did not intend to take other action to help the horse owners.

Mr Rowland said the borough had come under pressure to advance its plans for new SANG (suitable alternative natural greenspace) at the farm – forming a new entrance to the wider Stour Valley Trail project and taking traffic away from the heavily-visited Hengistbury Head.

This was to meet new regulations which require it to compensate for its major Winter Gardens development in the town centre.

“We have had to accelerate the SANG proposals on advice from Natural England,” he said.

“This is due to a change in the Appropriate Assessment regulations, meaning that large developments now require an Appropriate Assessment to consider the effect they will have on protected heathlands.

"If we are to meet our commitments to development we need to mitigate the effects they have.

"Natural England require that we now bring SANG proposals forward for 20 hectares of land (with parking) at Hicks Farm.

"We have no alternative SANG sites within Bournemouth.

“We will start work on a planning application imminently, this will include a public consultation.

“The SANG must be completed before first occupation of the Winter Gardens site.”

Councillor Bob Lawton, cabinet member for parks, said the borough had contacted other councils to try and locate an alternative home for the horses, and would advise the owners of its findings.

"The development of thousands of new homes increases the need for recreational space," he said.

"This is why Natural England has said that the council has to provide a new SANG before it can significantly move forward with plans to develop new housing sites across the town.

"The council-owned land at Throop is the only land where we can create a suitable SANG in the borough and we are aiming to submit a planning application in the coming months.

“We appreciate this land is used by local residents and we are aware the farmer has given horse owners, who use the fields to graze their animals, notice to find a suitable alternative.

"We are approaching neighbouring councils to see if they have suitable land available for horse grazing and should any suitable open space become available in Bournemouth in the future then we will let residents know.

“However, a new SANG can be enjoyed by the whole community and provides people with an opportunity to improve their mental and physical wellbeing through greater connection with nature."