At a restaurant in the 12th arrondissement of Paris, a group of 20 impeccably dressed young men and women are seated at an oval dining table. There are half a dozen bottles of red wine being passed around as a brace of sure-footed waiters carry in a silver platter bearing a colossal joint of roast meat. Alexandre Lazerges, one of the diners, taps his glass and rises to his feet. "Ladies and Gentlemen," he announces. "Pray silence for the horse." He sits, they carve, and this group of Parisian friends (The Pony Club, as they are known) indulge their culinary passion for the equine race. And, make no mistake, it's a passion that is not theirs alone. Today, in France, horsemeat is enjoying a renaissance. Horse butchers are reopening almost daily, while a governmentfunded website has been launched to promote horse as a healthy alternative to other red meats. "The main difference between us and a normal pony club is that they ride horses and we eat them," explains Lazerges. "They taste good - it's as simple as that." It all sounds very Continental, so brutally French, far removed from anything that would happen in horse-loving Britain. Indeed, while it's perfectly legal to sell horsemeat in Britain, there are no restaurants or butchers that do so as there is no demand. That, however, does not mean Britain has no role to play in the production of those Parisian steaks. The Mail has discovered that as many as 5,000 horses are being slaughtered here in abattoirs every year and their carcasses shipped to France, where they are enjoyed by the likes of The Pony Club. . Of that total, many are failed or injured racehorses - the cast-offs, animal rights groups claim, of an industry that purposefully over-produces horses in the search for winners. Equally contentious is the fact that every year a further 100,000 live horses are transported in horrific conditions across the Continent from Eastern Europe. Such facts inevitably shed new light on the controversy sparked earlier this month by Gordon Ramsay's Channel 4 show The F Word, which carried a segment singing the praises of horsemeat. Presenter Janet Street-Porter was shown travelling to France, selecting a horse for slaughter, and then cooking up the meat. "I am really begging you out there to give it a go," Street-Porter brayed to the camera. Other observers of the trade were horrified at her comments. "The horsemeat trade is undoubtedly the largest general abuse of horses in Europe," says Jo White, head of campaigns for the International League for the Protection of Horses. "It involves the transportation to slaughter of thousands of horses, travelling thousands of miles in inhumane and pitiful conditions." In the horse world, The Talland School of Equitation is a byword for riding excellence. Founded 50 years ago, its stables near Cirencester, Gloucestershire, are home to 100 of the finest thoroughbred horses and ponies - used to train riders in dressage, showjumping and cross-country. At the peak of their powers, these animals are each worth five-figure sums. By the end of their lives, they will be lucky to fetch £300. From an abattoir. For meat. Quite how many abattoirs there are in Britain that slaughter horses is difficult to say. Log on to the website of the Food Standards Agency and it's possible to find those abattoirs that deal with cattle, pigs, sheep and chicken. Bizarrely, there's even a couple that specialise in bison and water buffalo. But as for horses? Not a word. The fact is, the subject of killing horses for meat is taboo. I ask a spokesman for the FSA why details of horse abattoirs aren't published. "It's a sensitive subject," she replies, adding that disclosure might lead to harassment of workers by animal rights activists. Many will point out that the sensitivity surrounding the subject of horsemeat is illogical. If we are happy to eat meat, how can it be 'worse' to slaughter a horse than a cow or a pig? The bottom line is it's a subject that we, as a nation, would simply rather not know about. Horses, many people will say, are noble beasts, unwavering friends and servants to man for millennia, and with a highly developed set of emotional characteristics. Yet two British abattoirs are known to deal with the bulk of these animals - one is known as Turners and is close to the Cheshire town of Nantwich, and the other is L.J. Potter, which uses premises in Taunton, Somerset. I call Valerie Turner, of Turners, but she refuses to discuss the subject. "I have a golden rule not to talk about this," she says. "Every time I do, I get s*** on. We have kids ringing up complaining, all sorts. I don't need it." Far more forthcoming, however, is Stephen Potter. His abattoir slaughters 50 horses a week and he is happy to show the Mail around, saying that he has nothing to hide. "It's very easy to get worked up about something you don't really know the facts about," he says. "Once you are supplied with the information, you can make informed choices. But it is difficult to get people to engage in that argument with regard to horses." There can be no doubt that his abattoir meets the highest welfare standards - the horses are despatched quickly and cleanly. Led into a 12ft square metal stall, each animal is killed with a single shot fired from a .22 rifle into the brain. The bullet is designed to ensure maximum damage and that death is instant. Next, they are lifted up by their hinds legs and their throats cut. Then the process of dismemberment, disembowelling and flaying begins. The slaughtermen work quickly and efficiently using razor-sharp knives to cut through sinew and bone until what passes down the line is a carcass of meat - just like any other animal killed to be eaten. "I honestly believe this is the kindest way to kill an animal," says Mr Potter. "A lot of the people who bring their horses here to be killed are distraught at losing a creature they might have known all its life and they want to know it will be despatched cleanly and quickly. "If we had a reputation for not doing the job properly people wouldn't bring their animals here. "The meat value is almost a sideline, but it helps subsidise the caring and professional service we provide." According to Nettie Seely, of the Talland riding school, that's exactly why they send their horses to Mr Potter. "We have to have horses put down because they get too old and infirm, and a couple will go each year," says Mrs Seely, an instructor at the school. "This is the best way to put them to sleep." And what about the fact that the horse will, in a few days' time, end up on a Frenchman's dinner plate? "We are more interested in ensuring they die well - we don't think about it, we bury our heads in the sand about that," she admits, adding that the only other option would be to pay £200 to have the horse killed, removed and then incinerated. The abattoir pays £300, and Mr Potter believes that financial incentive actually plays a role in preventing the abuse of horses. "Slaughter underpins welfare, because an animal with a commercial value will be treated better than one which has none. "People would be more inclined to dispose of their animal improperly if it was going to cost them something," he says. Whatever the merits of this argument, the biggest issue of disagreement centres on where the horses come from. Mr Potter insists that the horses he takes represent a cross-section of the general horse population. Others dispute this, claiming the racing industry gets rid of its surplus animals through the abattoirs. Andrew Tyler, director of Animal Aid, the country's largest animal rights group, claims that every year more than 2,000 unwanted racehorses are killed for meat in this way. "The figures we have assembled suggest that there are 17,000 thoroughbreds born each year and only about 5,000 make it to race," he says. "The industry is breeding horses that are fast but weak, and as a result has to over-produce because of the high level of horses that will be physically unsuitable. "They then either sell this 'waste' to abattoirs or, if the horses have taken drugs that make them unsuitable to enter the human food chain, shoot them in their yards." The British Horseracing Board claim Animal Aid's figures are vastly overblown. Mr Tyler, in turn, accuses the horseracing industry of 'deliberate concealment' and highlights by way of 'evidence' a recent investigation by a Sunday newspaper in which an undercover reporter visited Turners' abattoir. The reporter spoke to owner Derek Turner who is said to have told him that the abattoir killed '2,000 to 3,000' racehorses a year. When later confronted with this figure, it was revised to 700. Whatever the origin of the horses, what is known is that all of the horsemeat slaughtered in Britain will be exported to Europe, most of it going to France. Demand there is stronger than it has been for decades and there is an insufficient domestic supply. As a result, wholesale companies such as Equus, based in Paris, have had to look elsewhere for horsemeat. "