Farmer charged with wilful ill-treatment of cattle

23 July 2008

North Wellsford farmer Keith Thomas pleaded guilty to 5 charges under the Animal Welfare Act 1999 earlier in March this year for allowing stock in his care to suffer from malnutrition. Mr Thomas was convicted and sentenced yesterday in the Warkworth District Court. He was ordered to pay $53 000 in costs and an enforcement order was made for supervision of his farming operation for two years.

Mr Thomas had 622 cattle on three adjoining properties at Topuni. Inspectors first assessed the cattle at one of the properties in August 2006 after receiving a complaint from a member of the public.

The initial assessment of the property by local SPCA Inspectors revealed cattle in a very malnourished state, staggering when walking. The property was run down, with no water or pasture for grazing and no supplementary feed. Mr Thomas was instructed to turn on the water supply to the farm as well as provide grass and feed to the cows within 24 hours.

Further visits by Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) Enforcement Group personnel and veterinarians to the other two properties found more cattle in a poor condition, with evidence of deaths. The properties were in a similar state of disrepair and the defendant was instructed to source further feed for all stock and obtain veterinary assistance if any animal deteriorated.

The defendant failed to comply with the instructions, leaving MAF with no choice but to obtain a search warrant and move cattle to a suitable yard to allow veterinary inspection.

It became apparent there had been chronic under-feeding with 90% of the cattle found in an emaciated condition, some showing signs of severe malnutrition.

It was necessary to euthanase 56 cattle to end their suffering. Post mortem examinations conducted on some of the cattle found signs consistent with extreme starvation.

Mr Thomas stated he had been unwell and could only spend three to four hours at a time on the properties. He knew the stock was "light" but believed they were "in not bad nick.".

Judge Morris commented that a deterrent sentence was appropriate in this case and it would let the farming community know that the wider community regarded this type of conduct as abhorrent.

It was acknowledged that the offending occurred during a time that Mr Thomas was "immobilised with despair" due to a horrible window of personal circumstances.

The victim impact statement described the situation as "mind numbing" and the cattle as "walking skeletons" a situation described by the Judge as a serious animal welfare crisis with animals emaciated and starving.

MAF Investigations Manager Greg Reid said that he was surprised that a farmer of Mr Thomas's experience and knowledge had ended up in such a dire predicament. "I cannot accept that he didn't realise how serious the situation was and that his cattle had literally been starving to death for weeks."

"This is a case of a farmer failing to take responsibility for his animals even after being advised more than once what was required to stop their daily deterioration".

MAF urges farmers, particularly those who may be suffering with the ongoing impact of the recent drought, to be proactive, not to leave their decision making too late and remember that management of supplementary feed or reduction in stocking rate is pivotal.

Assistance and advice to those farmers in difficulty is available through agencies such as the Rural Support Trusts, Federated Farmers, Inland Revenue, WINZ and Lifeline.

Media contact:

Lisa Gibbison | Communications Advisor | MAF Biosecurity New Zealand | Phone: 04 894 0432, 029 894 0432

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