Campaigner held 10 hours over drowned squirrel

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The Independent Online

A wildlife campaigner said today he was arrested, handcuffed and detained for 10 hours after he drowned a grey squirrel to provoke the RSPCA into taking him to court.

Norris Atthey, 66, chairman of ant-grey activists Morpeth Red Squirrels, killed the animal last week to confront the charity following its prosecution of Raymond Elliott last month.

Burton magistrates granted Mr Elliott a conditional discharge but ordered him to pay £1,547 costs to the RSPCA after the 58-year-old window cleaner admitted causing unnecessary suffering to an animal by drowning a grey squirrel in a water butt.

Mr Atthey, a former military policeman of Ulgham, Morpeth, was furious about the prosecution and last week spoke out in the media about the RSPCA, claiming the huge charity was acting like a bully.

An inspector visited the grandfather-of-four's home yesterday and when Mr Atthey refused to co-operate, two police officers arrived to arrest him.

He was taken to Bedlington police station - often used for high security suspects - in handcuffs, around 11am, and finally allowed home at about 9pm, after being questioned on suspicion of causing unnecessary suffering to an animal.

His home was searched and five dead grey squirrels were removed from his freezer and will be subjected to autopsies later.

Mr Atthey, who said he was afraid of nothing having survived cancer, admitted part of the reason he was detained for so long was that he argued he was being held unlawfully.

"I am incensed about the whole affair," he said.

"People cannot believe what's going on.

"My solicitor was gobsmacked."

Mr Atthey traps grey squirrels to protect native reds, and claims to humanely dispatch them. The greys in his freezer were to be sold to a Northumberland game supplier for £1 each.

He normally shoots them with a powerful air rifle having trapped them, but decided to drown one a fortnight ago to challenge the RSPCA.

He said it took 30 seconds to die and believed he could prove drowning was a humane method of killing squirrels, but the RSPCA strongly disagrees and views drowning as unlawful.

A Northumbria Police spokesman said: "Police were called to assist RSPCA officers at an address in Ulgham at around 10.45am yesterday.

"Officers arrested a 66-year-old man at the address for causing unnecessary suffering to an animal."

If the charity decides to go ahead and prosecute, Mr Atthey will be summonsed to appear before South East Northumberland magistrates.

Mr Atthey said: "I'm trying to prove we have to stand up to the RSPCA otherwise we won't be able to trap grey squirrels and reds will die."

An RSPCA official said it was not an animal welfare charity's place to recommend a lawful way to dispatch squirrels, but if someone did trap an animal it was their responsibility to find a humane method of "euthanasing" it.

In a report on red and grey squirrels in Northern England, the organisation Natural England advised against drowning unless no other fast-acting method was possible.

A spokesman said: "Our inspector visited yesterday morning but the man refused to talk with our inspector and just closed the door on him, advising him to get the police in to arrest him in order to facilitate an interview.

"This was duly done and he was interviewed yesterday at the police station.

"Investigations are ongoing and we are unable to make any further comment at this stage."