WARNING: This story contains photographs that some readers may find distressing.
The Cheshire farmer jailed for keeping dozens of his livestock in an ‘animal concentration camp’ will have to live with his crimes for the rest of his life, says the chairman of the National Farming Union (NFU).
James Stratton, of Churton Heath Farm, Bruera, was branded a ‘disgrace to farming’ after Warrington Crown Court heard on Friday how he had abandoned his dead, rotting cattle to go on a skiing holiday.
The 49-year-old, who ran a farmhouse B&B with his family, will now spend a year in jail and has been banned from owning animals for 10 years after dozens of cattle carcasses were discovered at Hatton Heath’s Cold Harbour Farm, which Stratton rented to raise a herd of beef cattle for dog meat.
He had previously admitted 20 specimen charges of animal welfare offences at Chester Magistrates Court in October.
NFU chairman Richard Fair admitted Stratton’s crimes were ‘horrific’ and said the authority did not condone his behaviour at all.
“It is as horrific to livestock farmers as to other people, but the sad thing is, these things happen,” he said.
“It’s not unique but it is very rare and it’s sad the Strattons weren’t able to get help and that they let it get to such a point. I would have thought this problem crept up and got bigger for the family; farming can be so insular and can bring about so many pressures.
“But it’s an eye-opener for all of us – in any walk of life, we should keep an eye on our neighbours.”
Mr Fair added: “We will all come across people with bottled up problems who can’t find a way to relieve them. But we do not condone it; this is by far the worst case I’ve ever heard of in my farming career and it doesn’t help the farming industry’s cause.
“To see one animal suffer is wrong and I don’t know what can go on in other people’s heads. Stratton will have to live with this for the rest of his life.”
The shocking details of the case were relayed by prosecutor Matthew Corbett-Jones who told the court of the horrific scenes that faced animal officers employed by Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWaC) when they arrived at Stratton’s farm on February 13, 2013, after receiving various tip-offs.
“On a freezing cold, snowy day they discovered the remains of 11 sets of animal bones, a sheep carcass and 33 decomposed cattle amongst live cattle, which were in obvious poor health in appalling conditions,” he said.
“An empty ring feeder with a live animal stuck inside was also discovered and another was stuck between the ring feeder and the feed rail, having been blocked in by another carcass.”
The court was shown harrowing video footage of the site, which had a dirty water supply, consisting mostly of water dripping from the roof, and images showed the remaining cattle living in slurry several feet thick.
A large dead bull who had died with its head jammed inside its feeder was also seen badly decomposed and mummified and one live animal was so starved of food and water he was unable to move.
Mr Corbett-Jones added: “The animals of all ages, sex and sizes were mixed together, leading to unborn calves not surviving and being trampled on while the body conditions of some of the other animals were so bad they had to be euthanised.”
When officers attempted to contact father-of-two Stratton, he was away on a family skiing holiday but was due to return the next day.
However, despite being informed of the discoveries, he still decided to extend his holiday for an extra day.
During his absence, Stratton had asked a man he had previously hired to help with his animals, to look after the cattle at Cold Harbour while he was away.
In a statement read out to the court, the man described being ‘disgusted’ at the state of the farm, noting live animals living amongst numerous dead calves.
They had no bedding and food Stratton had ordered was late arriving.
Afterwards, the man contacted the RSPCA and was able to assist CWaC in removing some dead animals and provide food and water to the remaining ones, who showed clear signs of being hungry.
When Stratton returned on February 15, he agreed to surrender the animals and five days later, was arrested.
He claimed the animals were scrapped out every other day and bedded down every second or third day, but admitted he had seen a number carcasses piled on top of each other and had moved them to the slurry heap, intending to deal with them upon his return.
But of the 37 cattle taken into CWaC’s care, just nine were properly registered, only four had passports and three had discrepancies as to the breed – meaning just one of the 37 cattle was viable.
Many of the animals eventually died or had to be put down.
Stratton, who admitted to having had ‘problems’ with the cattle, said it had been ‘impossible’ to tag them as they had been so wild, and he had been unable to dispose of the carcasses due to weather.
But Simon Parry, defending, said farming was Stratton’s ‘life’ and it was a ‘one-off set of circumstances extremely out of character’.
“This is a truly awful situation that officers found themselves discovering,” he admitted.
“However, this is a decent man of 49 who has, up until this episode led a decent, hardworking life and never crossed the attention of the authorities.
“He is deeply ashamed of this and doesn’t blame anyone or anything but himself.
“It’s an incredible shame to see this man, so respected in his local community and as a farmer, in this situation.”
Mr Parry told the court how Stratton had spent his entire life in the farming community, beginning at agricultural college, and always had a very ‘positive work ethic’.
“This is far from the usual animal welfare case; he fully accepts he made some poor decisions regarding case management of his cattle and admits he could have done a lot better,” he said.
“He was struggling personally in his own life – the usual stresses of farming were getting on top of him and his reaction was to ignore and bottle up what was going on – to not ask for help.
“Crucially, when the cattle were in that deteriorated state, he should have asked but he was thoroughly embarrassed at his situation.
“Fortunately now he has started the process of gaining help.
“The wet, cold winter of 2012 -2013 was a ‘particularly awful period for farmers and Mr Stratton sometimes simply didn’t have the correct machinery to get onto fields and came to the point where he realised he wasn’t viable to farm.”
Mr Parry reassured the court that none of the cattle were sold to butchers’ shops and consumers were never at risk.
“If this was deliberate he wouldn’t have ordered feed and wouldn’t have arranged for someone to look after the cattle at all. Deep down this is a perfectly good farmer who has let himself and his family down with this sad aberration.”
But Judge Roger Dutton branded Stratton a ‘disgrace to the farming community’ and compared the conditions at Cold Harbour Farm to a ‘concentration camp’.
“This case represents an appalling and cavalier disregard for the animals’ welfare. It’s quite plain for a period of many weeks, a large number of cattle were neglected, very poorly treated and many failed to survive,” he said.
“Their emaciated carcasses and bodies were littered throughout your premises where other animals had to search for food.
“You are put forward as an experienced farmer and it might be that you weren’t able to cope but that’s no excuse – you had plenty of opportunity to do something about it but you didn’t. The footage we saw today is akin to scenes after the war.
“Not only have you let yourself and your family down, you have left the farming community down because there is a special trust there. You have failed your colleagues badly.”
He added: “Unfortunately your farm was aptly named ‘Cold Harbour’ because that’s exactly what it was.
“It’s quite plain there was no system in place whatsoever at your farm. The public will be appalled to hear this story but they must know if this kind of crime takes place, the court will take a very serious view.”
It was also revealed in court that the investigation had cost the taxpayer more than £60,000.
Judge Dutton, who also banned Stratton from owning and dealing with animals for 10 years, ordered Stratton to pay £20,000 in prosecution costs.
See pages 34-35 for readers’ views on this shocking case