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Monday, 25 February, 2002, 17:30 GMT
Polish horses dished up in Italy
Horses at Poland's biggest horse market
Farmers have flocked to Skaryszew for the past 600 years
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By Nicholas Walton
BBC Warsaw correspondent

"Look out! Look out!" a man shouts as he charges through the crowded street with his horse, scattering the crowd.

We don't like to see them eaten - but that's the way things are in the world

Miroslaw Sienkiewicz
Fair organiser
This is Skaryszew, just south of Warsaw, which since 1432 has played host to Poland's largest horse market.

Over a thousand horses can line the streets on a busy trading day. The fair sprawls out from the town's main square, with stalls offering everything from barbequed kielbasa, or sausages, to saddles and horse whips.

Increasingly this is an international event. As fewer and fewer horses are required by struggling farms in the Polish countryside, foreign buyers are stepping in.

And many of them are buying these horses to sell on for sausage meat back home.

Young flesh

"Those that live in the countryside don't have much money now, so everything is being bought by foreigners," complained Marek Niemiec, who's been coming to Skaryszew for the past 18 years.

"If we could keep the young horses we'd be happy, but everything young is being taken to Italy and only the old and dying are staying with us."

European cooking
Horsemeat is used in several European cuisines
Most of the farmers mention the Italians, who account for 90% of Polish horse exports.

On the outskirts of the fair a horse, one of the typical Polish Sztumska breed, brown with a tan mane and bred for hard work, is dragged onto a trailer attached to a large truck.

The number plates on the truck are Italian.

Exports to Italy, Belgium and France have made Poland Europe's largest exporter of horses for meat.

Last year around 40,000 were exported, and in each of the preceding years the number was closer to 100,000.

The country's horse population has halved to about 500,000.

Dead on arrival

Many Poles are uncomfortable with this.

"We're campaigning against live horse exports because it's extremely cruel," says Joanna Drauss, the manager of the Warsaw branch of the animal rights charity, Viva!

"Its profitability depends on breaking the law. Horses are transported for up to 95 hours. They're not watered or fed. They're overcrowded in trucks. And when they come to Italy some of them are dead already."

Horses at Skaryszew
The horses embark on journeys up to four days long
Ms Drauss says that despite other problems facing Poles, such as record unemployment and a faltering economy, they're still emotional about their horses, and are shocked at what is now happening.

By mid-morning back at Skaryszew the smell of vodka starts to mingle with the barbeque smoke and the horse manure.

Traditional folk songs are being performed on a stage near the centre of town.

The man playing the accordion is Miroslaw Sienkiewicz, who is the organiser of the fair.

"What can I say? In Poland we don't eat dog meat but in Asia they do," he said.

"It's the same with horses. We don't like to see them eaten either. But that's the way things are in the world."

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