Background and Facts
On 13th February 2013, Bill Worthington, a 74 year old pensioner, was fined £140 (but took a bigger hit on the costs – £1,281) and banned from owning or keeping a squirrel for ten years (possibly one of the more unusual court orders that will be made this year).
The news report is scant in detail. There is some more details from ‘Pest Magazine‘. It seems that Mr Worthington had a bird table which also attracted grey squirrels, which he took objection to. To prevent this, he set a mechanical trap. Last September, one unlucky grey squirrel took the bait and got stuck in the trap. Mr Worthington then shot it twice with an air rifle.
Unfortunately for him (and perhaps also for the squirrel), the squirrel was still alive. Mr Worthington did not realise this however, and went out to the shops. On his return, he saw that the squirrel was still alive and shot it three more times. The squirrel was obviously quite hardy (or Mr Worthington was a very bad shot) as this still hadn’t killed it. A neighbour later called in the RSPCA who took it to the vet to be humanely put down.
What is the law?
There are various provisions impacting on animals, but it seems that this case involved an offence under s4 Animals Act 2006. This requires proving that Mr Worthington :
- Did an act (or failed to act) to a ‘protected’ animal
- Causing that animal to ‘suffer’
- Where he knew (or should have known) that the act would cause this suffering
- And that the suffering is ‘unnecessary’
A protected animal is defined in s2 as being any pet (not a squirrel), or an animal that ‘is under the control of man whether on a permanent or temporary basis, or is not living in a wild state’.
It is not illegal to shoot squirrels, but it seems that Mr Worthington’s problem was that by trapping it, the squirrel became ‘protected’ (being then under the control of man).
The act for the purposes of the Act (legal terminology can be a bit confusing) would be not the shooting of the squirrel the first time, but the leaving it to ‘suffer’ instead of killing it. This was obviously compounded by the second shooting.
In those circumstances, it is not surprising that the suffering caused would be considered ‘unnecessary’ (even in the absence of a Victim Impact Statement from the squirrel).
By his plea of guilty, Mr Worthington would have accepted that he should have known that the squirrel was still alive (even if he, in fact, did not realise that, as he appears to have stated.
Was the sentence fair?
The maximum sentence is six months (it is a summary only offence). The maximum fine is £20,000 instead of the usual £5,000. There are no guidelines for the offence to call on, so it is a question of applyng general principles. We don’t have any details of any previous offending, but there does not appear to have been any.
The Court, in passing a relatively low fine, would have taken into account Mr Worthington’s means, but probably, also the fact that the animal was a squirrel and there was no intention to cause any suffering.
The order prohibiting Mr Worthington from keeping a squirrel seems a bit of an odd one (there aren’t many squirrels kept as pets). The power to do so in contained in s34 Animal Welfare Act. The relevant sections is subsection (2):
Disqualification under this subsection disqualifies a person
(a) from owning animals,
(b) from keeping animals,
(c) from participating in the keeping of animals, and
(d) from being party to an arrangement under which he is entitled to control or influence the way in which animals are kept.
There is no limit of time for this. What Mr Worthington may wish to know is whether he traps another squirrel, this would count as ‘keeping’. We are not aware of any caselaw that would determine this (but it’s a relatively niche area of law), but would suggest that ‘keeping’ may involve more that merely trapping. It may be, however, that Mr Worthington would not wish to test that.
Either way, it would seem that Mr Worthington is free to carry on shooting the squirrels in his garden in any event. But he can’t keep one as a pet.
Why are the costs so high?
In the Magistrates’ Court it would be usual (on a guilty plea) for the costs to be under £100. The answer here is that this was not a prosecution brought by the CPS. In this case, the RSPCA was the prosecuting authority, and they tend to charge a lot, lot more.