By Alison Harper
One of the horses rescued from Spindle Farm
Five members of the same family have been found guilty after scores of horses, ponies and donkeys at a Buckinghamshire farm suffered neglect.
The scene of unimaginable horror that faced RSPCA officers at Spindle Farm in Amersham can now be described.
More than 100 horses, emaciated, bones protruding, were dying where they stood from dehydration, starvation and infection.
Elsewhere on the farm, 32 carcasses were discovered decomposing into the wintry mud - the horses, ponies and donkeys still lying where they had collapsed.
The farm was owned by Jamie Gray - an equine trader with a history of animal neglect.
He had been fined £3,500 in 2006 for causing unnecessary suffering to animals - but was allowed to continue his trading business.
Less than two years later, the RSPCA officers who brought the original conviction were back, and the scene was more distressing than before.
"It was the worst case of neglect I have ever seen," said the chief inspector for the RSPCA in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, Rob Skinner, who has witnessed some horrific animal cruelty cases.
But the severity of this one shocked him and his fellow officers.
"We had to act fast. We had to sort out the worst - a pony collapsed by a trough. It was those real emergencies we had to sort out first," he said.
That was more than a year ago and, ever since, the rescued ponies have been at rehabilitation centres across the country.
They have needed specialist veterinary care.
Many were infested with worms, some had painful infections and all needed food, water and time to recover.
On the outside the rescued animals all look as if they have made good recoveries.
Skin and bones are covered with layers of fat and well conditioned coats but the damage from Spindle Farm is never far away.
Even now some of the horses are at risk from underlying conditions which they contracted in the care of Jamie Gray.
Their progress has been monitored closely by the RSPCA - and Kirsty Hampton, one of the investigating officers, has kept in contact with the rehabilitation centres.
"Some of the horses needed simple feeding, others veterinary care. For two weeks one of the donkeys had to be picked up every morning till it could stand on its own," she said.
This type of dedication has led to vast improvements in the health of the ponies, donkeys and horses but it has come at a cost.
The RSPCA has spent £850,000 pounds caring for all of them at a time when the recession is hitting the charity hard.
It says it needs public donations now more than ever and has launched a huge nationwide emergency appeal for funds.
Kirsty Hampton has been monitoring the horses' progress
Ms Hampton illustrates the huge financial strain of this single case: "As the care goes on, it costs a thousand pounds a day. It's worth it. If we hadn't taken the horses, we'd have been watching others have a slow death".
As the costs mounted, the trial of Jamie Gray, his wife Julie, son James Junior and daughters Jodie and Cordelia got under way at Bicester Magistrates' Court.
The District Judge was read an inventory of each animal's injuries, collected by an independent vet, Ben Wakeling, during the rescue.
- Horse number 6: Grey miniature Shetland pony, lying in derelict shed. Had been dead some time. It had been allowed to suffer by not being given adequate husbandry.
- Horse number 10: Chestnut gelding. Had been dead for more than a few days. It had been allowed to die without any intervention.
- Horse Number 18. Shetland pony found with a blanket over it. No food or water close by. Had been dead for more than a couple of days.
- Horse number 21: Bay gelding collapsed against a water trough. Pony unable to lift head or move its position. Offered water and drank immediately.
All five defendants denied the charges against them.
Jamie Gray told the court that when he bought the horses he did not know many were infected with worms and it was the severity of that infestation which led to the sudden deaths.
He claimed some of the animals were like family pets and they were only found in overcrowded conditions as he had brought them in from the rain.
Jamie Gray's company, Gray's Horses Limited, traded thousands of animals each year and he told the court there would always be some deaths.
The District Judge in this case has had to consider whether animals such as these, destined for slaughter, should be protected under the same animal welfare act which domestic owners need to adhere to.
The guilty verdicts brought to an end Britain's longest-running animal cruelty case, but the story of the horses rescued from Spindle Farm is far from over.
The RSPCA will have to wait for the sentencing of Jamie Gray and it is pressing for him to be given a lifetime ban from keeping horses.
Then there is the future of the scores of horses still under RSPCA care. They will need to be rehomed now that they have a second chance of life.