SQUIRREL campaigner Norris Atthey is claiming victory after the RSPCA dropped court proceedings against him.
The Ulgham resident, who runs the Morpeth Red Squirrels group, was facing charges of causing unnecessary suffering to an animal after telling the Herald last August that he had drowned a grey squirrel.
The 67-year-old said at the time that he had acted to challenge the RSPCA to prosecute him and show that drowning was more efficient than other methods of killing squirrels following the charity’s prosecution of Raymond Elliott in Burton for the same offence.
Mr Atthey was arrested and charged under the Animal Welfare Act. At South East Northumberland Magistrates’ Court in Bedlington in November he pleaded not guilty and the matter was expected to go to trial.
But at a case management hearing on Friday, the RSPCA announced that it was withdrawing proceedings.
In a statement, the charity said: “The case was brought by the Society after Mr Norris Atthey contacted the local media following the RSPCA’s prosecution of another individual for the same offence, claiming that he had himself drowned a squirrel and, in his belief, this was humane.
“The RSPCA strongly disagreed that this was a humane method of euthanasia and duly investigated the matter. This included obtaining expert evidence from a leading veterinary forensic pathologist on the issue of drowning and whether suffering would have been caused or not.
“This evidence was that the drowning of any animal is inhumane and does cause unnecessary suffering.
“The court heard that Mr Atthey had handed the RSPCA a signed declaration stating that he had drowned a squirrel. On Friday, he refused to stand by his statement.
“In light of these developments, the RSPCA reviewed its position and has decided to withdraw proceedings against Mr Atthey.”
It concluded: “The RSPCA maintains that drowning any animal causes unnecessary suffering and we will investigate any such complaints or claims that come to our attention and take action where appropriate.
“Mr Atthey has not just wasted the RSPCA’s time, but that of the court and the District Judge was critical about this, saying ‘He has brought this on himself. He put himself in this position and then he withdraws from his own position’.”
However, Mr Atthey said no statements were withdrawn and he neither denied nor confirmed anything.
He said: “The RSPCA are clutching at straws. I was surprised when they stood up and said they were withdrawing the case.
“I wasn’t prepared to say whether or not I had committed the offence. My solicitor stressed to the RSPCA that they had no evidence apart from my statement. He suggested that I could withdraw it. My solicitor, quite rightly, wouldn’t come off the fence and wasn’t prepared to say whether I had done it or not.
“The statement they have made about me saying I withdrew my statement is false. I, nor my solicitor, made any such comment.
“The article that appeared in the Herald stands. People can interpret that how they want, whether I drowned the squirrel or not is by the by.”
The campaigner, who believes that grey squirrels should be killed to protect Northumberland’s native red species, still disputes that drowning is an inhumane method of culling and said laws such as the Agricultural Act and Forestry Commission Act place a duty on landowners to control vermin, including grey squirrels.
He said he will continue his culling work and may even consider drowning as a method in future.
“This case was about showing that drowning a grey squirrel was legal and the fact that the RSPCA was sending out a message that you can’t kill grey squirrels,” he said.
“In Northumberland, our culling of grey squirrels is essential to saving the reds and we had landowners thinking they couldn’t carry out grey squirrel culling because they would be arrested by the RSPCA.
“To me, the message is quite clear – people can carry on and should be encouraged to kill greys and landowners need to be reminded of their legal responsibilities to do so.
“If the occasion arises where I am in a situation and it is difficult for me to dispose of a grey and drowning is there as an option that is open to me now.
“There is still no clarification on that, but the law says you can kill grey squirrels.”
An RSPCA spokeswoman said: “Mr Atthey has been saying the RSPCA is trying to stop the culling of grey squirrels all along and it is not true.
“It isn’t that the RSPCA is opposed to the culling of grey squirrels, we accept the grey squirrel status and we know why culling happens. We don’t believe that it is an effective way to save the red squirrel, but this case had nothing to do with greys and reds.
“This was purely to do with the fact that Mr Atthey had said he had drowned an animal and drowning an animal causes unnecessary suffering.
“Whether it was a grey squirrel or some other animal, if Mr Atthey had gone to the Press and said he had drowned any animal then we would have been concerned.”
She added that the charity is now facing legal costs of up to £1,500 for the case.
“We wouldn’t have taken on this case unless we thought there was a case to answer and that was based on Mr Atthey’s declaration. Obviously, it is a shame that all this time and money has been essentially wasted,” she said.
Mr Atthey must also pay his own costs.
• VANDALS have again targeted Norris Atthey’s car.
Three tyres of his Vauxhall Astra were pierced with a dart-type instrument this week.
Mr Atthey noticed the damage on Tuesday morning.
He said: “I had to take my Freelander to the garage and my wife came in her Astra to pick me up. On the way back there was something not quite right, then I saw that three tyres had been done.
“It was deadly because the roads were slippy and my wife had slid and nearly had an accident on the way there. She was quite concerned.”
The incident has been reported to police.
Mr Atthey has had a total of 15 tyres pierced, amounting to around £1,000 of damage.