A horse dealer and his father who allowed horses, ponies and donkeys to suffer and starve to death on their Co Antrim farm have been warned there is the distinct chance they may be going to jail.
A horrified Judge Desmond Marrinan told 55-year-old Robert James McAleenan and his 25-year-old son Conor they had pleaded guilty to very serious and shocking charges, and he wished to carefully consider the case before passing sentence next Tuesday.
At one stage the Antrim Crown Court judge interrupted a defence lawyer, asking had the defendants not seen the photographs in the case, which he described as "utterly horrifying".
They were like something out of a charnel house, the judge said, with horses left to stand among the rotting carcasses of others left lying around in filth.
On another occasions Judge Marrinan told a second lawyer he could not understand how anyone could leave animals to suffer day after day, week after week.
He said that denials of deliberately causing suffering to the animals were akin to the denials of guards on the Burma railway, who allowed their prisoners to waste away to become living skeletons.
Both father and son, originally from the Oldpark area of north Belfast, pleaded guilty last month to a total of 32 charges involving causing unnecessary suffering to the animals between November 1 and 25 in 2011.
A lawyer for Robert McAleenan said while he owned the Lisnevenagh Road farm, he was not directly involved with the horses, although he accepted his guilty pleas unequivocally.
Counsel for his son claimed he became overwhelmed after switching from dealing in working and show horses, to trading horses in a commercial way, although he, too, did not shy away from his pleas.
Earlier prosecutor George Chesney described the horrific scene of devastation that greeted police and a vet when they first went to the farm between Antrim and Ballymena on November 22, 2011. As they approached where the animals were kept, they could smell the stench of death.
In one corner the vet found a heap of bodies of horses and ponies, which had been dead for some time.
In one shed they found six animals, with the body of a seventh lying against the wall. The animals, said Mr Chesney, were in an emaciated state, living in filthy conditions.
They had neither food nor water and were being subjected to unanswerable suffering.
The lawyer described one pony found lying down, unable to rise, which eventually had to be put down. Another, estimated at two years old, was severely underweight, the bones of its spine and ribs sticking out.
The bulk of the animals were moved to a neighbouring farm, before being looked after by a number of charities and animal sanctuaries. In all, there were 63 horses, ponies and donkeys.
The corpses of six animals were found rotting, while three others had to be put down. When interviewed, Conor McAleenan claimed that the horses found dead had only died a couple of days before the arrival of police.
He said he was in the business of buying and selling animals for slaughter, and he had not wanted them treated with antibiotics because he did not want the chemicals in the food chain. His father, described as being in poor health, suffering from bowel cancer and angina, was never interviewed, although he admitted owning the farm.
Defence lawyer Des Fahy for Conor McAleenan explained that since he was a boy, he and his father have had a lifetime involvement with animals.
Previously they had dealt with cattle and sheep, but some were stolen so he began to trade, not in a commercial way, in working horses and show horses.
He said that around 2009 he moved to deal with the animals in a commercial manner, but soon found himself to be totally ill-equipped to do so as it was totally different to the earlier trading. The lawyer said that he had failed and was not looking after the animals to the requisite standard.
"The situation had become overwhelming and it got outside their control," said Mr Fahy, who acknowledged that once the situation had developed he should have sought help from others.
"It became a vicious circle," said Mr Fahy, and one that would have been brought to the attention of the authorities in any event.
Stephen Mooney, for McAleenan snr, said he owned the farm, and suggested that the animals were the responsibility of his son. However, as the owner, he still bore some responsibility for them.