Farmer jailed over 'highly organised' cock-fights in barn

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The Independent Online

While two blood-splattered cockerels fight to the death in a makeshift straw pit, a group of watching men can be heard laughing.

While two blood-splattered cockerels fight to the death in a makeshift straw pit, a group of watching men can be heard laughing.

Moments later the video goes blank as police and RSPCA officers raid the illegal cock-fight and arrest 10 men at a duck farm near Chichester, West Sussex. A 12-year-old boy was also present at the fight in April last year. Similar fights, which were outlawed in 1835, are held throughout the country every fortnight and involve a hard core of about 400 men, the RSPCA believes.

In an extremely rare case the men responsible for the Chichester fight were successfully prosecuted yesterday and the ringleader was jailed.

Joseph Keet, 56, a duck breeder, was sentenced to 90 days in jail and ordered to pay £5,000 costs. He was also banned for life from keeping cockerels.

The cock-fight was held on a Sunday morning in a barn at Keet's farm, Southgate Duck Nursery, in North Mundham.

It was a spectacle that the magistrate described as "utterly barbaric" and "torture" and which the RSPCA said was "highly organised".

Inside the corrugated iron barn RSPCA inspectors found 15 birds, one cockerel was dead and several were badly injured. The fights were between shamo/Malay cockerel crossbreeds in a "naked heel contest". The birds claw and peck each other until one cockerel collapses or dies.

The other type of fight involves a bird having a small metal sword or spur fitted to its natural spur. These contests only last a few minutes because the wounds to the head and body quickly prove fatal.

In the most recent case the police and RSPCA were tipped off that Keet had arranged a series of fights at his farm.

A video recording of two of the fights showed a pit or fight ring made out of straw bales. Two birds were shown attacking each other and the audience could be heard laughing and talking around the edge of the ring. When the police arrived, several birds were badly wounded and the ring was splattered with blood. Cockerel eggs for breeding new fighting birds were also recovered.

Keet, described at Mid-Sussex magistrates' court as the "main player", was found guilty of causing unnecessary suffering, aiding and abetting, being present at a cock-fight and using his premises for a cock-fight.

The stipendiary magistrate, Paul Tain, told him: "You showed barbaric behaviour pitting one animal against another for the sole purpose of enjoying cruelty ... I am totally convinced that a prison sentence is the only option for this level of cruelty." He said it was "utterly cruel to take pleasure from torture".

Nine other men, aged from 19 to 35, from Hampshire and Sussex were fined £300 each with £100 costs, for attending the cock-fight. A 12-year-old boy was cautioned for being present.

Mike Butcher, a chief inspector with the RSPCA special operations unit, which was involved in the case, said: "Cock-fighting was made illegal in 1835 but it has never gone away.

"There is some sort of fight or sparring match going on somewhere in the country every fortnight."

He said that during each illegal meeting, typically held in a farm building, back garden or garage, there were usually two or three fights. Fights were usually held in isolated locations with an escape route in case of police raids, but they were not confined to the countryside.

In 1999, in one of a handful of successful prosecutions, an upstairs bedroom at a house in Birmingham was used for fights.

The RSPCA said it was only aware of about 12 prosecutions for cock-fighting since 1835. The low number of convictions is largely because it is hard to break into the secretive and intimidating world of the blood sport.

Birds are usually matched according to weight and there is a fight referee. It is usually watched by between five and 20 people. The betting stake is typically a few hundred pounds.

Mr Butcher explained: "It's not about money it's about the best bird, pride and ego, although if your bird wins you can ask for more money for breeding."

Breeders smuggle the eggs of fighting birds from South America and Indonesia.

The RSPCA officer said that three groups of people were most often involved: travellers, country dwellers involved in illegal blood sports, and Asian groups who fight quail as well as cockerels.

He said: "There is a hard core of 300 to 400 people from every part of the country. It is more a rural thing, but one of the last big cases was about a fight held on the outskirts of London." That case was in 1996, when 14 men were caught watching a fight at a caravan park at Belvedere, Kent. Mr Butcher said: "It seems incredible to think that this activity is still happening despite the fact that it was banned more than 150 years ago."