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‘Abhorrent’ gang who set dogs on wild animals sentenced

December 06, 2016

Eleven men were today sentenced – three receiving jail terms – for their part in a series of "abhorrent" attacks by dogs on deer, badgers and foxes.

Graphic and distressing video footage found on the mobile phone of the ringleader was shown in court, showing dogs savaging badgers and deer as the accused looked on and gave encouragement.

At one stage during the sentencing hearing at Plymouth Magistrates’ Court today, District Judge Diane Baker said anyone involved in the hunting of deer with dogs was "entirely abhorrent to right-minded members of the public".

She described Graham Coombes of Abbey road, Bovey Tracey, as the "ringleader" of "organised animal hunting that involved the training of dogs who were [his] tools; tools to hunt and kill".

"You’ve absolutely no regard for the welfare of these animals," she added.

The other men involved were Oliver Blatch, Kenneth Danes, Gethyn Durham, Brian Forrest, Dean McGrath, Joseph O’Connor, Pheon Radford, Ryan Robinson, Philip Cross and Daniel Ravenscroft.

Jeremy Cave, prosecutor for the RSPCA, who brought the case, said that of the 27 offences, 22 were related to killing or attacking deer with dogs. four matters were of animal welfare issues relating to the dogs – including neglect – and another was the possession of a dangerous dog.

Mr Cave said the gang’s activities came to light after an incident on January 2, 2015, where Coombes was confronted by a landowner as he was hunting on land for deer without permission.

Coombes got into an altercation and then launched a car chase, which ending at Chudleigh police station.

Police came out to deal with the commotion in the car park whereupon Coombes hurled his mobile phone into a bush.

Examination of his phone found thousands of photos, texts and videos relating to the hunting of wild animals with dogs.

The list of kills found on Coombes phone even included a llama.

Mr Cave said the "primary motivation seems to be gratuitous pleasure".

He said some evidence suggested a commercial enterprise with the sale of deer carcasses.

Mr Cave said Coombes was at the "centre of the operation, organising nights out, posting trophy pictures on social media".

"He bears the greatest responsibility for the actions of all the defendants," he said.

Mr Cave said the group would go out ‘lamping’ – using powerful lamps at night to startle and stun deer before setting dogs – usually lurchers – on them.

He said their aim was "to kill as much wildlife as possible".

Trophy photos and videos of dogs with their kills, and their injuries sustained during fights with badgers and foxes, were shared among members of the group who came from Devon, Dorset, Somerset and South Wales.

Mr Cave said they would travel to Devon to take part in hunting, sharing their efforts and bragging about their dogs’ kills.

During two warrants executed on May 20, 2015, and November 18, 2015, a number of hunting-related items were seized along with a number of dogs identified from Coombes’ mobile phone.

Prosecutors showed a series of video clips showing a number of different attacks on wild animals.

In one it showed three terrier-like dogs barking around a caged vixen who appeared terrified.

Another clip showed one of the dogs inside the same cage, savaging the neck of the fox as it screamed and wailed in pain.

It was followed by a clip showing two dogs dragging a fox from the cage onto a field as they rip it apart.

The audio of the dogs growling can be heard over the sound of a man – presumably Coombes – breathing heavily.

A fourth video showed a fox strung up by its tail as three terrier dogs savage its face and neck.

Another video shown in the case of Blatch showed a dog at the neck of a struggling stag with a male voice saying "good boy, good one Tyson, get on, ******* pucker, that’s a big unit".

In relation to O’Connor, one photo taken on October 13, 2014, showed a dead dear and what appeared to be a llama and four rabbits.

Mr Cave said a search of Coombes’ land by Trading Standards found a pile of animal carcasses with at least 20 separate skulls at the top of the head.

The incinerator operator informed RSPCA investigators they disposed of 604 kilos of animal products, all believed to be from hunts.

Mr Cave noted how texts from Coombes to other members of the gang talked about how his dog went "nuts, he won’t last long, it’s a shame that he’s too hard".

The court heart how Coombes got another person to shoot his severely injured dog after it had been fighting a badger "for four hours".

The court was told one message from Coombes stated it had been "under an oak tree for four hours. Ripped to pieces… Pig [badger] chewed him down to the windpipe".

He then got another person to shoot the injured dog because he was unable to.

Other video clips shown to the court included one taken at night which saw two dogs ripping at the front and rear of a badger as it screamed out and struggled to free itself.

Another clip showed a dog savaging the neck of a roe deer with Coombes, breathing hard, telling his dog "good lad, good lad".

During many of the clips being shown in court, many of the accused dropped their heads to avoid the screens as friends and family in the public gallery looked away.

In mitigation, Coombes’ advocate, Clive Rees, said his client wanted to apologise to the court "primarily to his co-accused because of the information provided by him on his mobile phone".

This prompted District Judge Diane Baker to state that each of the accused needed to "take responsibility for their own offending".

When Mr Rees said Coombes always had permission from landowners to hunt on land, District Judge Baker remarked he did not have such permission from the landowner when he embarked on "an unseemly chase".

Mr Rees said Coombes came before the court a "very frightened man" who was described by employers as "honest, trustworthy and reliable".

He said Coombes had "suffered a great deal of criticism" and had "threats of violence" aimed at him.

However, when Mr Rees suggested Coombes was not aware of the legal status of his brand of hunting, District Judge Baker interrupted and said: "I can’t accept that he wasn’t aware of the illegality of what he did" before citing a probation report which showed he "quite clearly knew it was illegal".

Sentencing Coombes, District Judge Baker noted how one defence put forward by a solicitor suggested the activities by the 11 were "simply economic".

She noted the legislation was drafted for the "management of wild deer and to improve population". However, she said it went on "to help the manage a humane, responsible and sensitive approach to the management of wild deer".

She said very few people in the court would not have felt uncomfortable "to the squeal of the badger as it had its mouth ripped out, or the fox that was screaming in its cage as the dogs were being trained to kill it and fight".

She said she would be "very surprised if there was anybody who did not feel uncomfortable" at hearing those sounds.

She told the court their activities were "entirely different to a silent, stealthy stalking and killing of the deer".

She said: "This was not what we have seen. This was not an economic crime. It’s an animal cruelty crime."
‘It’s blood lust’

Speaking outside of court, RSPCA Chief Inspector Will Mitchell said Coombes’ phone contained around 30,000 images "mostly depicting wildlife crime and the use of dogs to kill wildlife, around 11,000 text messages, and videos".

The texts contained a series of "colloquial descriptions of animals, so for badgers they were described as ‘pigs, ‘black and whites’, ‘humbugs’ and ‘smellies’.

He said: "This was a very serious case, demonstrated by crossing several county boundaries – this was an organised group, including people from Devon, Dorset, Somerset, South Wales and Surrey.

"There would be the bravado in terms of the type of dogs used and the successes of the dogs. They wanted them for the fight, for destruction.

"There was a degree of commercial enterprise. The dogs suffered taking the various quarry.

"The guys that dig out badgers use certain breeds and they regard the injuries their dogs suffer as medals, so they could be regarded as a hard dog and others would want to breed from that dog.

"They might say this was sport or pest control – but it’s blood lust. There is immense damage to the wild animals and to the dogs themselves.

"It’s been a protracted two-year investigation, working in partnership with Devon and Cornwall Police, particularly beat officers PC Alisa Hooper and PC Steve Last.

"We carried out simultaneous raids on properties at several locations around the country.

"There were more people involved, names which came up during our examination of Coombes’ phone and our investigation is ongoing.

"If you have any information about this kind of activity or have seen images on social media which suggest people are involved in this kind of activity, then contact us or the police.

"It involves the untold suffering of wildlife and even of tame and domesticated animals. We know there was a llama involved in this case as well as domestic pigs and cats which had been attacked by dogs."

Graham Coombes, aged 41, a groundworker of Abbey Road, Bovey Tracey, pleaded guilty to three counts of intentionally killing deer at night on different dates in 2014. He pleaded guilty to two counts of willfully killing a badger and one of willfully injuring a badger.

He pleaded guilty to causing unnecessary suffering to a terrier called Marley by failing to treat its injuries.

Coombes was sentenced to a total of 20 weeks in prison. He was ordered to pay £3,000 court costs and £60 victim surcharge. He was disqualified for keeping dogs for life.

Oliver Blatch, aged 27, of Sturminster Newton, Dorset pleaded guilty to two counts of killing deer at night.

District Judge Baker noted Blatch was of previous good character before sentencing him to a total of eight weeks, suspended for one year, to complete 180 hours unpaid leave, pay £800 court costs and £60 victim surcharge.

Kenneth Danes, aged 29, of Culmhead near Taunton pleaded guilty to two counts of killing deer at night.

District Judge Baker noted he was a hardworking man of good character and his early guilty plea.

She sentenced him to a total of eight weeks suspended for 12 months and ordered him to pay £800 court costs, £60 victim surcharge and to forfeit his dog Cruz.

Joseph O’Connor, aged 23, a farmhand of Pontardawe near Swansea, admitted three charges of killing deer in 2014.

District Judge Baker told O’Connor the killing of deer was "absolutely abhorrent, it’s barbaric". However, she recognised his probation report showed genuine remorse and he was of previous good character. She also recognised his advocate’s observation that he was of "limited ability" and his "sense of shame".

She told him he had worked in agriculture his whole life yet despite that he involved himself in the killing of deer.

He handed him a nine-week jail sentence, suspended for 12 months. He also had to complete 200 hours unpaid work, pay £800 court costs and £80 victim surcharge.

Gethyn Durham, aged 27, a landscape gardener of Cymbran, Gwent, admitted one count of killing a deer.

He also pleaded guilty to possession of a pitbull-type dangerous dog and five charges of keeping other dogs in an unsuitable environment.

District Judge Baker said she accepted his dog Bonnie was a "beloved family pet" but his probation report "shows [Durham] shows little remorse and has antipathy for the RSPCA and their work".

Durham was jailed for six weeks followed by 12 months supervision. He was ordered to pay £800 court costs and £115 victim surcharge.

As his partner broke down in the public gallery, District Judge Baker told Durham the legislation regarding dangerous dogs "ties my hands" and she ordered the dog be destroyed. Durham was also told he was disqualified from owning dogs for five years.

Brian Forrest, aged 40, an electrician of Kingston St Mary, near Taunton, pleaded guilty to a single count of killing deer.

District Judge Baker also noted how he was of previous good character and he had shown genuine remorse.

She sentenced him to six weeks jail, suspended for a year, to complete 140 hours unpaid work, pay £800 court costs and £60 victim surcharge. She also ordered him to forfeit his dog Eve.

Dean McGrath, aged 29, of Cwmbran, pleaded guilty to a single count of killing deer.

McGrath was handed a six week prison sentence, suspended for 12 months. District Judge Baker ordered him to complete 160 hours unpaid work, pay £800 court costs and £60 victim surcharge. He was also ordered to forfeit his dog Blue.

Joseph O’Connor, aged 23, a farmhand of Pontardawe near Swansea, admitted three charges of killing deer in 2014.

District Judge Diane Baker spoke said the video footage played in court showed the action taken by the men was "entirely different to silent, stealthy, stalking and killing of deer".

He was jailed for nine weeks suspended for 12 months, ordered to complete 200 hours unpaid work, pay £800 court costs and £80 victim surcharge.

Pheon Radford, aged 22, of Ystrad in the Rhondda Valley, pleaded guilty to killing a deer and caused unnecessary suffering to a dog.

District Judge Baker said Radford left his dog Scar to suffer from an "unpleasant" injury and listed previous scars on its body. She said he had deliberately travelled from Wales to take part in the deer hunts with Cross.

She sentenced him for a total of 10 weeks, suspended for 12 months; to complete 150 hours unpaid work, pay £800 court costs and £60 victim surcharge. He was also disqualified from keeping dogs for three years and to forfeit his dog Scar.

Ryan Robinson, aged 20, of Foundry Court in Chudleigh, admitted taking a deer without the consent of the owner.

He was handed a 12 month community order, take part in a 10 day rehabilitation requirement, complete 200 hours unpaid work and pay £800 court costs and a victim surcharge of £85.

Philip Cross, aged 36, of Tonypandy in the Rhondda was found guilty after trial of killing deer at night.

He was jailed for eight weeks and disqualified for keeping dogs for five years. He was ordered to pay £4,000 court costs and £80 victim surcharge.

Daniel Ravenscroft, aged 37, of Grange Road, Buckfast, was found guilty after trial of killing deer at night.

District Judge Baker said she took into account his early guilty plea and his 10 years service in the British Army. She noted he had given up his dog voluntarily and his probation report spoke of how he recognised how low he had fallen and the devastation it had caused him, leaving him "so embarrassed, so remorseful and so ashamed".

Ravenscroft was sentenced to six weeks custody, suspended for 12 months, to complete 200 hours unpaid work, forfeit his dog and pay £4,000 court costs and £60 victim surcharge.

http://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/abhorrent-gang-who-set-dogs-on-wild-animals-sentenced/story-29962492-detail/story.html

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