RSPCA accused of misusing the justice system as badger 'digging' case is dismissed

Animal charity defends its motivations in face of condemnation from the Countryside Alliance as prosecution of 'hunt supporters' falls through

'Sett digging' prosecution withdrawn
'Sett digging' prosecution withdrawn

The RSPCA has been accused of misusing the criminal justice system after a case it brought against "hunt supporters" collapsed.

The charity brought a private prosecution against Keith Watson, a farmer, and his family after accusing them of interfering with a badger sett in February last year while assisting the Cheshire Hunt.

But at the start of what was to be a three-day case at South Cheshire Magistrates’ Court in Crewe on Monday, the prosecution accepted there was insufficient evidence and the case was dismissed.

The Countryside Alliance, which posted details of the case on its website, criticised the charity for bringing a weak case. Tim Bonner, director of campaigns at the alliance, said: "It is simply disgraceful that the RSPCA is using the criminal justice system to pursue a vindictive campaign against the hunting community. There is no way on earth that the police and Crown Prosecution Service would have prosecuted on such flawed and weak evidence, but the RSPCA pursued Mr Watson and his family simply because they were part of the Cheshire Hunt."

The RSPCA said it spent about £3,500 bringing the case against Watson and his family for "digging" that had allegedly taken place at the badger sett. A spokeswoman said: "At the opening of the trial, concerns among experts did appear as to whether such ‘digging’ technically constituted a breach of the law. Consequently, and entirely appropriately, the RSPCA offered no evidence and the case was dismissed."

In December, the RSPCA successfully brought a private prosecution against the Heythrop Hunt for killing a fox, but the animal charity was criticised by the judge and some politicians for spending more than £320,000 on the case.

Simon Hart MP, a critic of the Heythrop Hunt prosecution, said the RSPCA was leaving itself open to charges of being politically motivated. "The RSPCA is claiming to use the same methods as the CPS when prosecuting cases, but it does so internally – it is effectively an RSPCA CPS," said Hart, a former chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, now a Conservative MP. "I’m suggesting there should be external oversight of these cases because, until there is, we will not know if these cases are politically motivated."

The RSPCA said bringing prosecutions was a last resort to prevent animal abuse and uphold the law. "We can say categorically that we never pursue any case for political reasons," said the spokeswoman. "All cases are always based on alleged offences around animal welfare or cruelty."

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