RESIDENTS and horse riders on Holt Heath say they have grave fears about the safety of people and animals.

Kirk Dexter is facing a £4,000 vet bill after his 13-year-old horse Merlin spent three hours being cut free from a cattle grid, which he had got stuck in after bolting from his paddock.

The grid is part of a National Trust and Natural England scheme launched last August to recreate a scene Thomas Hardy would have seen by introducing 35 Angus cross cattle and six New Forest ponies to graze on the land. In the last month another horse had to be put down in a similar situation, and two cows have died after car crashes.

Mr Dexter said: “Merlin is still in a lot of pain from his severed tendon and tissue damage.

“If he’d been stuck for half an hour longer we would have lost him. He went into major shock and his blood pressure dropped.

“This is a serious issue and we’ve got the welfare of all the animals to think about.”

Residents say they voiced their reservations before the animals were released last August.

“This isn’t just people getting on their high horses,” Mr Dexter added. “Animals are dying, and we feel really strongly about this. We’re not willing to put up with it anymore.

“Is it going to take a human life to be taken before something is done? We’re not willing to let that happen.”

The National Trust’s countryside manager Nigel Chalk said the grids are necessary to keep grazers on the heath, but they were committed to the safety of people and animals while protecting the national nature reserve and Site of Scientific Interest.

Cows will be fitted with reflective collars as soon as possible and shallow ditches along the side of the road may be altered, after residents reported cows leaping into the road, he added.

The Highways Agency will also be asked to consider adding road markings and signs to remind drivers of the 40mph speed limit.