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A bankrupted farmer wept in court as he narrowly escaped going to prison over animal cruelty offences.
Suspending James Steele's nine month sentence for four years at Antrim Crown Court, Judge Desmond Marrinan told the 47-year-old he believed his case was unusually exceptional and that as a "broken man," sending him to prison would be a "harsh punishment."
He told a crying Steele that "when I first saw these papers and realised the suffering that these animals had to endure, I was of the view that this case clearly crossed the custody threshold" especially given his previous convictions for similar offences.
The judge added however that having heard how the father of two was intellectually incapable of looking after his 153 cattle herd, coupled with the fact that he had literally lost everything, "I regard this as a highly exceptional case."
At an earlier hearing Steel, from the Gobrana Road in Glenavy, entered guilty pleas to a total of 16 charges including ten counts of causing unnecessary suffering to cows, sheep, calves and a bull, three counts on dates between 17 September 2015 and 10 January last year.
In the first case DAERA have prosecuted in the Crown Court, prosecuting lawyer Robin Steer told the court the charges arose as a result of a series of inspections by the Dept of Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs at lands Steele was renting in Crumlin, Dundrod and Glenavy.
He outlined that over the course of the numerous visits, Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) officials found:
A "distressed" sheep which was found to be suffering from "cerebrocortical necrosis," a disease of the central nervous system, later euthanised by the bet
A young Charlois bull was weak and dehydrated suffering from pneumonia so given the poor prognosis and "poor body condition," it was also euthanised
At a yard on the Lisnataylor Road in Dundrod, Mr Steer said inspectors from a cubicle house with 18 feeding spaces but added that was used to feed 97 beasts, 49 cows, a bull and 47 calves, which meant it was "inadequate for the number of animals to allow them to have sufficient access to food."
"In addition the passageways were knee deep in slurry and there was no bedding for the calves," said the lawyer adding that there was also a dead calf in an area where other calves had access to.
As a result of the inspections, DAERA officials were granted a seizure/deprivation order on 12 January last year and seized the 153 cattle but when they were examined, "it was decided that 13 animals were not fit to travel and were euthanised," said the lawyer.
He told the court the fact that Steele has previous convictions for causing animal suffering was an aggravating factor and during an exchange with the judge, it was revealed that Steele had these animals while waiting to appeal a lifetime ban on keeping animals arising from that conviction.
In that case, also dealt with by way of suspended jail sentences, Steele was found guilty of two charges under the Welfare of Animals Act (NI) 2011 in that he had caused suffering to a number of donkeys which he kept in fields in the Dundrod area in June 2015.
The Animal Welfare Service responded finding 11 donkeys, nine of which had severely overgrown hooves making it very painful and difficult for them to walk.
After a full examination the Council’s vet stated that the condition of nine of the 11 donkeys was such that they should, in their own interest, be humanely destroyed.
Lodging an impassioned plea in mitigation on Friday, defence barrister Neil Moore said Steele was a "fourth generation farmer" who had bought a herd of 800 cattle and a farm with his wife but that things went badly wrong when she left him in 2011.
"It almost reads like a work of fiction where a person comes home to find a note on the table saying 'I'm leaving you' but that's exactly what happened to James Steele," said the lawyer.
Until then, the successful farm had been run by Steele's wife who lodged all the paper work for the various government grants and looked after the animals while Steele, because he had "an eye for good stock," was essentially the cattle dealer.
When she left him, said Mr Moore, the farm fell apart, he didn't apply for EU farm grants which would have netted him "in excess of £100,000 a year" and his animals were ill cared for simply because he didn't know what to do.
"She was the cement that held his brick wall together and once she left, the cement was removed and the wall collapsed, that's the best way to describe this," submitted Mr Moore.
As Steele sat weeping in the dock, the lawyer said the farmer had lost everything, his wife, his daughter, his son had moved on, he had lost the farm and matrimonial home in the separation and then the herd which at one stage was worth "more than a million pounds."
Now he is living with his mother, is declared bankrupt, has numerous health difficulties and is on job seekers allowance.
Mr Moore pleaded: "There are many many cases you will deal with where imprisonment is essential, my submission is that this isn't one of those cases."
Sentencing Steele and banning from from keeping farm animals for 25 years, Judhe Marrinan said he had "listened carefully" to Mr Moore's plea and read the psychological report which placed him "in the bottom 5% of the population by way of intellectual ability."
He said while he accepted Steele "is not a cruel person" and that the suffering came as a result of neglect rather than positive cruelty, "it's clear to me....that you are a broken man and that to send you to prison, although justified, would be a harsh punishment."
Speaking after today’s sentencing, Danny Gray from DAERA’s Welfare and Enforcement branch said: "This is the first time the Department has had to take an animal welfare prosecution to the Crown Court due to James Steele’s continuing and inexcusable disregard for the care of his animals.
"Today’s sentencing underlines how serious DAERA is about pursuing those who continue to break the law relating to animal welfare."