Five members of one family were found guilty of "grotesque" cruelty yesterday after one of Britain's largest horse-rescue operations. RSPCA inspectors who raided Spindle Farm in Buckinghamshire last year found a "horror scene" of starving, emaciated and diseased animals, surrounded by the rotting corpses of others.
In total, 115 horses, ponies and donkeys were rescued and 32 others were found dead in varying states of decay.
Yesterday, trader James Gray, 45, and his son James Junior, 16, were found guilty of 11 charges under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. His wife Julie, 41, and daughters Jodie, 26, and Cordelia, 20, were each convicted of two charges under the same Act.
Nicolas De Brauwere, the head of welfare at Redwings, one of the horse sanctuaries called in to help, said: "I feel the evidence of cruelty and the extent of equine suffering in this case was so overwhelming that a guilty verdict was the only possible outcome so I am delighted with today's result. "I have no doubt that what myself and my colleagues saw that day will remain with us for the rest of our lives."
During a 51-day trial, Bicester magistrates' court in Oxfordshire heard that the RSPCA inspectors called at the farm in Amersham in January last year to find what some of them described as the worst case of animal cruelty they had ever seen.
Horses were crammed into overcrowded pens, ankle-deep in their own manure. Some of the 140 animals were so emaciated and disease-ridden that they had to be put down.
Hooves and body parts were discovered scattered across the farm, along with a mound made up of bones and skulls. As many as 32 carcasses were found. Some had been burnt on a bonfire and others were covered with rubbish. The court was told that Gray, shouted abuse at officers during the the inspection. He told the trial it was common for horses to "drop down dead" without warning, and the corpses were "family pets" waiting to be buried.
RSPCA inspector Kirsty Hampton said: "This case was distressing beyond measure. What we were confronted with on arrival at the farm was grotesque. To see animals in such awful condition was overwhelming and those that had survived were shown little care or consideration. Many horses and ponies had just been left to starve, and the smell of rotting flesh was overpowering."
As he delivered the guilty verdicts, District Judge Andrew Vickers reminded the defendants that all family members – who denied the charges – shared responsibility for the neglect. The father and son were found guilty on all 11 counts of causing unnecessary suffering. The three women were convicted of two charges of failing to protect animals from pain, injury, suffering and disease but acquitted of the nine cruelty charges.
Gray, who has a previous conviction for causing unnecessary suffering to a horse in October 2006, will be sentenced along with the other members of his family on 12 June.
After the verdicts, a spokesman for the RSPCA said: "Our inspectors will never forget the scene that greeted them at Spindle Farm last year and we are glad that justice has been done. This verdict sends a clear message out about animal welfare."
Paul Jepson, chief executive and resident veterinary surgeon of the Horse Trust, which was among the charities to take in some of the sick animals, said: "Many of the animals have made a spectacular recovery and it has been a joy to watch them bucking and playing in the fields."