A prolific fox hunter has dodged cruelty charges despite a raft of evidence gathered by animal welfare charities in Britain and Northern Ireland, Sunday Life can reveal.
East Belfast man Neil Pinkerton and other members of a hunting network were the subject of a year-long undercover investigation by the USPCA, the League Against Cruel Sports and Naturewatch.
Photographs, video footage and extracts from private chat groups were gathered and 12 dogs were seized by the PSNI from Pinkerton’s house late last year.
However, the 34-year-old will not face any further action after police and a council declined to bring charges against him and his dogs were returned.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where hunting with dogs remains legal after a bill which sought to ban the practice was rejected by the Assembly last December.
Pinkerton has been hunting for years and openly brags about his blood-soaked exploits on social media — even posting photos of badly injured dogs and savaged foxes.
In 2018, he was acquitted of animal cruelty charges at Belfast Crown Court after one of his terrier dogs suffered horrific injuries during a fox hunt.
He came to the attention of animal welfare charities in Britain as his profile rose in the working dogs breeding scene and he was invited to judge shows in England.
An animal welfare source close to the investigation told this newspaper Pinkerton would rank among the more senior hunters in Northern Ireland, despite his relatively young age.
One of his dogs, called Storm, is among the most revered for its strength and hunting ability.
A pedigree hunting dog is highly prized, but animal welfare sources said there did not appear to be any trade in the animals among hunters or money changing hands for dogs.
Dogs are sometimes trained on adapted exercise treadmills to enhance their fitness, with severed fox tails used as bait.
Some have such power that owners fit them with specially strengthened collars that enable tougher leads to be attached should the dog need to be restrained.
This can happen when the animal gets a fox by the muzzle after being sent down a hole and then has to be pulled back out again to be physically separated from its prey.
When pursuing the fox underground, the dogs — often cross-breed terriers — can sustain stomach-churning wounds as their totally outmatched target desperately fights for its life.
“They do this purely for bloodlust,” said the source, who explained they had seen photographs of dogs with severely injured jaws shared among proud owners.
“The injuries would be excruciating,” explained the source.
The source said that during the investigation there was little evidence of injured dogs being taken to a vet for treatment, with some owners even opting put stitches in their dogs.
They also explained that although members of the groups would share details of hunts, the locations of foxholes were jealously guarded secrets.
Last year, the three charities worked to infiltrate online chat groups used by Pinkerton and others to share details about their sick ‘sport’ and boast of the ability of their dogs.
Using aliases, they gathered photographs of badly injured dogs and exchanges about hunting activities.
Evidence was given to the PSNI, which then raided Pinkerton’s terraced house in east Belfast, where he had 12 dogs in cages in the front garden and in his kitchen.
The Crumlin home of another man, whom Sunday Life cannot name for legal reasons, was also searched and a number of items recovered, but no further action was taken against him.
The police then passed the case to Belfast City Council, but a prosecution was not proceeded with and Pinkerton allegedly live-streamed the return of his dogs on Facebook.
Commenting on the failure of the investigation, USPCA chief executive Brendan Mullan said: “We are incredibly disappointed that this prosecution didn’t proceed and that all the injured dogs seized as part of the investigation were returned to their owner.
“We would encourage the statutory enforcement agencies to review why this is the case, given what would appear to be clear evidence of cruelty and suffering inflicted on the individual’s own animals.
“This case exposes the underbelly of fox hunting in Northern Ireland — it strips away the veneer of a country pursuit to control vermin.
“Sadistic individuals go out clandestinely into the countryside at weekends and inflict unthinkable suffering, not only to the innocent wild mammal, but also to their own dogs.
“Dogs forced to engage in this sport are trained to fight, often blooded using smaller domestic animals, and suffer severe injuries following their encounter with the wild mammal — injuries which very often receive little to no medical attention.
“Why is this sadistic ‘hobby’ still deemed legal in Northern Ireland, given the horrifying results for wildlife and domestic animals?
“Regrettably, our political representatives rejected a bill to ban hunting wild mammals with dogs last December.
“This was a bill which would have finally brought our laws in line with England, Scotland and Wales — regions which have had such legislation in place for over 20 years. Fox hunting is a prehistoric sport which needs to be consigned to the pages of history.”
In a statement to Sunday Life, the PSNI said: “We do not comment on named individuals and no inference should be drawn from this.”
Speaking to this newspaper, Naturewatch said: “It was blatantly obvious that these dogs were in immediate need of veterinary attention and throughout the investigation specific dogs deteriorated in their condition over many months.
“With the hunting bill recently defeated, common sense must play a part when dogs are used in such barbaric ways that severe injuries are a given, with many left suffering time after time.”
When Pinkerton stood trial in 2018 on animal cruelty offences, details of his sadistic activities and heartless attitude towards animal welfare were heard at Belfast Crown Court.
He was accused of causing unnecessary suffering to a terrier, a fox and of causing suffering to the dog by failing to get it adequate veterinary care.
The charges related to a period between December 2016 and January 2017 and came as a result of footage of a fox hunt posted online and passed to police by the League Against Cruel Sports.
The jury was shown two short video clips, the first of a black and tan terrier-type bitch and a fox “locked together, muzzle to muzzle or jaw to jaw”.
In the second clip, someone is seen digging the animals out of the foxhole.
In both videos, a man can be heard praising the terrier, calling out: “Good girl, Judy.”
The sound of whimpering can also be heard.
A vet told the court he believed the terrier was still suffering when he saw the animal in January 2017 and treated its wound because he “believed it was in pain”.
The vet claimed the animals were suffering in the video because no efforts were being made to separate them in a timely fashion.
He rejected defence suggestions that it was “perfectly acceptable”, as seen on the video, for the fox and terrier to be “simply held” in the full knowledge, from experience, that the fox would release its grip.
But Judge David McFarland halted the trial and directed the jury to acquit Pinkerton after he considered the strength of the evidence against him.
Sunday Life previously revealed Pinkerton’s boasts in a closed online hunting group chat, including one comment which read: “Fantastic hunt today, dug [a] lovely fox for wee bitch... big f***** killed the thing in [the] hole, crushed its head. Fs. Lol.”
He also shared a graphic video of one hunt and images of both the dead fox and the savaged, bleeding dog, captioned: “One’s going to feel this in the morning, one’s not”.
In July 2018, Pinkerton agreed to give up five of the 10 dogs he owned after they were found housed in a derelict shop in east Belfast by animal welfare officers from Belfast City Council.