A BUILDERS' merchant has pleaded guilty to burying dead greyhounds at his County Durham home without a licence. He now faces a jail term of up to five years.
David Smith appeared before Durham Magistrates' Court last Friday where he admitted disposing of dead dogs without a permit.
The prosecution was brought by the Environment Agency after police and the RSPCA ruled that the 57-year-old would not face criminal charges in relation to the destruction of the dogs as they were killed humanely with a bolt gun, which Smith was licensed to use. There was no evidence to support charges of animal cruelty in his despatch of the dogs.
Magistrates could have imposed a maximum fine of £20,000 or six months in prison, but they took the decision to send him to Durham Crown Court instead. A Crown Court judge has far greater sentencing powers - and the maximum punishment Smith now faces is five years in prison or an unlimited fine.
The Environment Agency brought the prosecution under regulations, introduced in 2000 following an EU directive, that are designed to reduce pollution.
Smith, 57, who said he has received up to 30 death threats, arrived early at the magistrates' court to avoid placard-bearing Greyhound Action protestors.
He was taken away in a dark car after pleading guilty to a single charge of disposing of waste - dead dogs - without a permit under the Pollution Prevention and Control Regulations.
When the story broke following an undercover investigation in the Sunday Times last July, Smith was said to have killed and buried up to 10,000 greyhounds behind his home in Northdene Terrace, Seaham, County Durham, over many years.
But magistrates were told the figure was far lower, and that in the past couple of years Smith had been destroying ‘around two a week’ for a fee of £10.
Well know solicitor Trevor Cooper, prosecuting for the Environment Agency, told the court: ‘It should be made absolutely clear that the agency is not prosecuting Mr Smith for destroying the dogs. The case is about the unlawful burial of the dogs in the ground.
‘The Environment Agency cannot say how many dogs were buried.
‘This was a commercial operation and he was burying the dogs for money, and that activity had been going on for a number of years.’
Peter Schofield, defending, told the court that people took ‘stricken’ dogs to Smith and paid £10 to have them destroyed.
He told the court: ‘It has always been Mr Smith's contention that the numbers are nowhere near those reported. He assisted those that had sick or injured animals, and in the last 18 months the numbers increased to the extent of a few hundred.
‘Mr Smith was in fact involved in the disposal of dogs within the community, with some extent, the acquiescence of the RSPCA, police and local authority.
‘This was by no means a covert activity hidden from all.’
He added that, rather than destroying healthy dogs, Smith put down those that were sick or unfit to race.
In a statement to the Environment Agency, Smith said that many years ago police would take stray and injured dogs to his father to be destroyed. Since then, people who could not afford vets' fees took brought him dogs.
Smith took over the task when his father retired, with the knowledge of the RSPCA and council, it was claimed.
Bench chairwoman Vivian Lowe said: ‘We are of the view this was a commercial operation and it was going on for a considerable length of time and was escalating in recent years.
‘We feel our powers of punishment are insufficient and we are committing you to the crown court for sentence.’
Following the hearing, a Durham Constabulary spokesman said the force had no knowledge of dogs being taken to Smith's father with the force’s tacit acceptance.
He added that no complaints had been made before July 2006, ‘therefore no investigation was carried out’.
A spokesman for the RSPCA said that the Charity was not previously aware of any such offences perpetrated by David Smith or the reported number of dogs involved in this situation.
Easington District Council declined to comment on the case until Smith has been sentenced at a date yet to be arranged.
RSPCA Chief Veterinary Officer Steve Cheetham commented after the hearing: ‘This appalling and unnecessary slaughter shows how vital it is that racing greyhounds are given the protection they deserve through proper independent regulation.
‘Unfortunately this is a sad reflection on the greyhound racing industry which should be doing more to clean up its act. It is crucial that the industry accepts this as a problem, and works with animal welfare organisations to ensure the dogs' welfare is a top priority.
‘There is simply no justification for killing ex-racing greyhounds just because they can't do their job anymore. An animal should be the owner's responsibility for life not just until they have reached the end of their usefulness.’
The British Greyhound Racing Board issued no comment on the matter.