Two men whose “organised and prolific” cockfighting operation was exposed after they posted videos on Facebook have been spared jail.
Bill Ripley, 45, and Moses Brinkley, 61, were handed suspended prison sentences and banned from keeping game birds for two years at Bexleyheath Magistrates’ Court on Monday, having pleaded guilty to a total of 10 animal cruelty charges at an earlier hearing.
They were arrested after the RSPCA and police raided a travellers’ site in Bean, in Kent, in March last year and found 242 birds, including a hen with a neck injury.
One of the caravans searched was decorated with hundreds of photos and paintings depicting cockfighting and officers also found animal fighting paraphernalia such as spurs and muffs alongside books about the blood sport, the RSPCA said.
The probe was launched after material was spotted on a Facebook account in the name of Shamo Bill, an alias of Ripley.
Videos downloaded from the social networking site show cockfights at different venues, including a makeshift pit next to a caravan, as well as training techniques with cockerels being encouraged to attack dummy birds.
A 15-minute video played in court shows fights in which birds can be seen sparring, flapping at each other and pecking at their opponent.
Ripley and Brinkley, both of Claywood Lane, in Bean, Kent, each pleaded guilty to three charges of being present at an animal fight, one offence of keeping a premises for use in an animal fight and one offence of keeping animals for use in fighting.
The charges include five fights between July 2016 and March last year, during which two birds were killed, the court heard.
Chair of the bench, Alan Dee, sentenced Ripley to 14 weeks imprisonment suspended for a year, and handed Brinkley a 10-week jail term, also suspended for a year.
The pair were also banned from keeping game birds for two years, and each ordered to pay £856 in court costs and other charges.
Speaking outside court, RSPCA inspector Carroll Lamport, who led the investigation, said: “For that level of organised fighting I would have expected a prison sentence.”
He told the Press Association: “I’m somewhat disappointed because I think cockfighting is a very, very cruel activity and the level of what these guys were doing is at the very top.
“This is organised and prolific cockfighting, causing immense suffering to the cockerels involved.
“I think the disqualification was very light and I would have hoped they would have been banned for life.
“These guys were doing organised and regular cockfights and promoting what they were doing, with people coming from all over the country and abroad.
“It is a barbaric sport that was made illegal for all the right reasons.”
He added: “On a cruelty ranking, this is right at the top level where animals are forced to fight.
“The wounds they get are horrendous and the suffering is caused over a long period of time.
“This is an abhorrent act. Most people would be horrified to see the results of cockfighting and to think it goes on in this country is appalling.”
Prosecutor Andrew Wiles told magistrates cockfighting was outlawed in Britain in 1835, but remains prevalent in the UK and throughout the world.
“These defendants deliberately fought birds, the result of which is to cause them suffering,” he said.
“The Facebook material, which is extensive, suggests Mr Ripley, has been breeding, keeping, selling and fighting cockerels for a considerable time. It shows an interest dating back to 1990,” said Mr Wiles.
“There were in fact a total of 45,000 images downloaded.”
Richard Hawgood, defending both men, said his clients’ interest in game cocks lay primarily in the lawful breeding, keeping and showing of birds.
“No birds were seized at all, that is quite remarkable and quite unusual,” he said.
“The birds were in tip-top, prime condition.”
He said Ripley was encouraged to take an interest in game birds to help with his depression after a family tragedy, and gained admiration and respect he would otherwise not have got in his “marginal life”.
“The respect he got has unfortunately, so far as these offences are concerned, gone to his head.”
The court heard Brinkley told the probation service “it is the culture of the travelling community” and he and his friend “did it for fun”.
Mr Hawgood said: “I’m not going to seek to justify the offences on a sort of cultural or subcultural basis.
“If any activity is illegal, it is illegal, it is against the law.”