A livestock export company director fined over the Ramsgate sheep death case believes the ruling could open the floodgates to mass prosecutions within the animal transportation trade.
Thomas Lomas, 69, of Kettering, Northamptonshire, and his Kent company Channel Livestock were fined £19,000 over the incident at Ramsgate port in 2012, which led to the slaughter of more than 40 sheep by RSPCA staff.
A judge sentencing Mr Lomas at Dover Magistrates’ Court last Thursday (13 February) also handed him a six-month jail term, suspended for two years after he pleaded guilty to two charges of causing unnecessary suffering to animals in transport.
The court was told that during the incident on 12 September 2012, RSPCA inspectors working alongside vets from the government’s Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) checked a lorry containing 548 sheep and judged they were unfit to travel across the Channel. RSPCA inspectors ruled that one sheep had a broken leg and another was lame.
After the sheep were unloaded, RSPCA inspectors put down 43 of the animals, which they also judged to be severely lame and unfit to travel.
During the trial, the RSPCA’s actions were called into question, with defence lawyers insisting the move was part of the charity’s “vicious” campaign to stop the live exportation of animals.
Speaking to Farmers Weekly after the case, Mr Lomas said: “It was very, very unfortunate the sheep broke its leg. But after that, things got out of hand.”
When asked if he would challenge his conviction, he said: “I don’t know. However, the situation needs looking at and challenging at least by the NFU.
“The law is unworkable. Nobody can guarantee the safety of the animals. I think it’s imperative that farming leaders look at this. It affects auctioneers, markets, everyone.
“All keepers are responsible for the trucks that livestock are loaded on, if an animal is injured on that truck. We will certainly have to query the suitability of trucks and trailers.”
See also: Live export checks not failing, says NFU
During the hearing, Judge Barron decided the charges of causing unnecessary suffering to animals in transport were governed by strict liability – an absolute legal responsibility for an injury that can be imposed on the defendant without proof or knowledge or fault.
Speaking after the case, Mr Lomas’ solicitor, David Kirwan, from Kirwans law firm, warned the ruling could open the floodgates to “mass prosecutions” within the animal transport trade.
He said the ruling could now potentially allow the authorities to prosecute every time an animal is injured, regardless of the cause.
“If, as a result of this case, they actively pursue transporters on this issue, there is a risk we could see many prosecutions in coming months – with drivers, farmers, their agents and a whole host of other people, including, for example, car owners transporting their own pets, all put at risk of investigation.”
Mr Kirwan described the RSPCA’s actions as “yet another blow… to honest, hardworking, caring farmers who go to great lengths to ensure their livestock are raised to the highest standards”.
A spokesman for the RSPCA said: “The idea the RSPCA would set up an incident involving cruelty to animals for a campaign stunt is absolutely abhorrent to us.
“The situation that our inspectors had to deal with that day was extremely difficult for them. Everything they did was under vet advice.
“Our inspector was asked by the DEFRA vet present if she could put the sheep to sleep and he did not have the equipment available. She said she would and she did it under his full supervision.
“The sheep that we took off and the sheep that had to be put to sleep were not put to sleep because of the injuries that were caused when they were taken off. It was because of lameness and foot rot that was present before they boarded the lorry.”
Kent County Council (KCC) brought the prosecution against Mr Lomas following a report published by the AHVLA.
KCC Trading Standards manager Mark Rolfe said after the hearing: “We brought this case because live animal exports is a trade in which the people involved have a duty to take proper care of the animals involved, and when we are aware this does not happen, we take appropriate action.
“We are totally independent of any other agencies or organisations with an interest in this case, including Thanet Council, the RSPCA and the AHVLA.
“Our only concern is the enforcement of the regulations relating to the condition and treatment of the animals and the transportation used. We brought this prosecution because of failings by the operators in this case and are satisfied with the outcome.”
The court adjourned the case against two French drivers also charged in the incident.