A pensioner jailed after 131 horses were found living in squalid conditions along with bones “strewn across” a farm has been told the care and consideration he will receive in prison will be “many times greater” than that which he showed animals in his charge.
Geoffrey John Bennett, 67, of Portsmouth Road, Ripley, was jailed for 19 weeks at Guildford Magistrates’ Court today (15 October), of which he will serve half behind bars. The judge also ordered that he receive 12 months supervision on release.
Bennett was disqualified from keeping animals and cannot apply to have that lifted for at least five years.
The sentence was in relation to two Animal Welfare Act offences, relating to the 131 horses as well as 33 dogs, two alpacas, five birds, plus six offences of failing to dispose of animal by-products.
Bennett had admitted the charges prior to sentencing.
Surrey Police executed a warrant at a farm in Ripley, Surrey, on 9 January 2019 in a major multi-agency operation. Three animals were put down at the time and the court was told the total number euthanised is 14 horses and two dogs.
Grim evidence shown to the court via video, and outlined by the prosecution, showed the extent of the horrors faced by animal welfare officers and vets, among others involved in the case.
The court was shown footage of a skeleton found wrapped in rugs and buried in the muck heap. Further remains were also found in a field and under a car.
“These regulations [concerning disposal of animal by-products] are designed in order to protect public and animal health. Your actions exposed animals and people to risk of harm,” said Recorder Reed.
Animals were found living in filthy conditions. In one of the barns, the muck in the stable was so high that fencing would not have been high enough to keep animals in. Footage showed several animals, including horses, had collapsed. There appeared to be no water available for the poultry, there was an open drain and a large volume of faeces in the area the dogs were living in, and the fields were littered with debris, collapsed partition fencing and wire.
The court heard the vast majority of horses were neither passported nor microchipped. Costs of care for the animals removed is estimated at £1m.
Barrister Michael Fullerton told the court his client’s applications for his own vet to attend post-mortems had been declined. He also contested whether horses’ ill health after being taken into RSPCA care should be linked to Bennett. All the horses were suffering from worm-related illness cyathostominosis to at least some degree on removal from the farm.
Recorder Reed contested this point, referring to the conditions in which the animals were found at Hurst Farm.
The defence also asked the court to take into consideration Bennett’s ill health, the wet winter in 2018/19 and how the tractor had churned up the land when moving hay for the animals to eat. It was also pointed out that a pink bucket was near to the animal carcasses, which was there to collect the bones found during the raid.
Mr Fullerton also asked the judge to consider allowing his client to keep up to a set number of dogs to serve as guard dogs for security purposes. This was dismissed.
Recorder Reed told the court he took into account the absence of previous relevant convictions, Bennett’s medical conditions and guilty plea when passing sentence.
He added that Bennett had “ignored warnings and professional advice” and that he had accepted no wrongdoing, nor expressed any remorse.
“One doesn’t need to be an expert or have 20:20 vision to see the disgusting conditions you were keeping animals,” said Recorder Reed, adding that likewise it would not take a vet to understand the suffering caused.
“These charges are so serious that only a custodial sentence can be justified.
“I have noted you are an elderly man with multiply health problems. I have no doubt that prison will be uncomfortable for you, but you will be shown there a degree of consideration and care multiplied many times greater than you showed for the animals in your charge.”
Following the sentencing, RSPCA special operations unit case officer Kirsty Withnall, who coordinated the huge rescue mission and led the investigation, said it took 100 staff from different agencies to help round up the animals.
“The RSPCA and World Horse Welfare officers had received complaints about the farm and had been looking into these concerns and gathering evidence,” she said.
“This was a huge multi-agency rescue mission, which was the culmination of weeks of planning and evidence gathering.
“It took almost 12 hours on the day to assess all of the animals, load them into horseboxes and animal ambulances, and move them off-site; making it one of the biggest coordinated rescue missions the UK has ever seen.
“We had to have a plan that would allow us to remove a large number of animals on the day, but we hoped that wouldn’t be necessary and had no idea what action would be taken until vets were able to assess all of the animals.”
She added: “The reason I do my job is because I care passionately about animals and I’ll be overjoyed when all of these animals are in loving homes being given the care, love and attention they deserve.”
PC Hollie Iribar, from Surrey Police, said this was one of the “most difficult cases” she has seen.
“As a rural and wildlife crime officer, I have witnessed some devastating acts of animal cruelty,” she said, adding that she is grateful to the RSPCA and other partner agencies for their hard work to bring this case to trial.
“I’m very glad that this heartbreaking case has seen a resolution in the courts, and that the animals involved were rescued and given a second chance at a happy and healthy life.”
A spokesman from World Horse Welfare added: “This was a challenging case but the teamwork between the charities and agencies when rescuing the animals was outstanding. We are relieved that we were able to help remove so many horses from these conditions so they could have a better life and receive the care they deserve.”
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