Secret network defies ban on cockfighting

Illegal `sport': Raids reveal 150-year-old ban ignored among close- knit communities
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The Independent Online
Every week in Britain and Ireland small groups of men, linked by a highly secretive network, gather to pit their fighting cocks in a battle to the death, sometimes waging thousands of pounds on the result.

The "sport" was banned in this country in 1849 but a reminder of the network survives came last week when a court rejected the appeals of two men against prison sentences imposed for cockfighting offences. John Lee, 48, of Belvedere, Kent, is now serving three months and Mark Giles, 31, of Billingshurst, West Sussex, one month.

Together with 12 other men and a 16-year-old youth, they were caught when 40 police and officers from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals raided a cockfight in a caravan park at Belvedere last year. Those not jailed were fined up to pounds 400, except for the youth who received a conditional discharge.

The case, only the fifth prosecution in the 147 years since cockfighting was made illegal, was a rare victory for the RSPCA. Another case is pending, resulting from a raid in the former mining community of Kelloe, Co Durham.

Prosecutions are hard to bring because, unlike dogfighting which is the pastime of natural braggarts many of whom are known criminals, cockfighting takes place in Britain's most tightly knit communities. For some travelling families it is a tradition going back generations, while more recently Asians have become involved.

Farmers and the few professional people who take part, believed to include doctors and lawyers, are also experts at concealing their activities. None of the usual sources such as underworld informers are any use, as it takes a long time to be accepted as part of the fraternity and many of the fights are held in remote rural areas.

The RSPCA is not revealing what led it to raid the fight in Belvedere. Chief Inspector Mike Butcher of its special operations unit, said: "Information came to our notice and we started a protracted inquiry. What happens is that every so often a piece of information comes in that makes the jigsaw complete."

Of the 14 men convicted in the recent prosecution, 10 came from Kent, 2 from Sussex, 1 from Rotherham, South Yorkshire and 1 from Scunthorpe, Humberside. Most were between 30 and 55 and were from traditional gypsy families. Cockfighting rings are also known to exist in the West Country, East Anglia and Hertfordshire.

Cocks fight both because of their strong territorial instinct and because handlers goad them before placing them in the pit. Normally the loser would flee but in the ring there is no escape and the victor, believing its rival is still a threat, kills it.

The birds - from traditional fighting breeds such as the old English game or newer imported Asian breeds such as the azil and the sharma - either fight with their natural spurs sharpened or with three-inch metal spikes attached to their legs and the contests can last up to 20 minutes. It is an activity which even in the 19th century was regarded as barbarous, yet there are hundreds of people in Britain who still regard it as an enjoyable way to spend a day.