THREE people accused of shooting four swans at Withybush Woods in October last year appeared before magistrates at Haverfordwest Law Court today (Mar 14).
There should have been four people in the dock, however Joseph Lawson, accused of jointly harming a swan with his co-defendants, did not attend court.
Magistrates issued a warrant without bail and hoped he would be brought to court immediately, before officers became aware that Lawson was in Mansfield.
The defendants who decided to show up to the hearing were: 32-year-old Gareth George Mattson of Goshawk Road in Haverfordwest; 24-year-old Benjamin Phillips of Jury Lane in Haverfordwest; and a 13-year-old boy, who cannot be named for legal reasons.
The 13-year-old boy and Phillips both pleaded guilty to the charges against them, however Mattson denied the allegation.
Prosecutor, Vaughan Pritchard-Jones, told the court that a problem with the swans was reported to Maria Evans of the Wildlife Trust. Ms Evans attended Withybush Woods on October 20, and could see a female adult swan was dead, but she was unable to recover it.
Mr Pritchard-Jones said: “The swan still hasn’t been recovered, and may still be there unless it has been taken away by a predator.”
He explained to the court that the following day, a cygnet had been found on the bank of the lake and was recovered. It was taken to All Pets Vet Care in Milford Haven for a veterinary examination.
At this point, it was still alive.
Mr Pritchard-Jones said: “It had received an injury to its wings. An x-ray taken of its wing showed fragments of an air pellet. The main bone had completely severed and was out of alignment. It had completely snapped.
“There were four or five metal fragments in its wing. It had to be put down, as it was unable to make a recovery.”
Three days later, a male swan was found dead in the same location. This bird was too taken to All Pets Vet Care, and underwent an X-Ray.
Mr Pritchard-Jones explained: “One pellet was in the middle of the abdomen, and one was near the joint of the leg by the hip joint.”
A fourth cygnet was recovered by the RSPCA the following day, which had damage to its wing consisting of a ‘soft tearing injury’.
Mr Pritchard-Jones told the court that there was no pellet found in that cygnet. However the wound ‘could’ have been made by a pellet passing through.
He went on to say that after police had made enquiries, suspicion fell on the four defendants. They made prepared statements, and the police and prosecution pieced together what had happened from these.
There were no eyewitnesses.
Phillips told officers that ‘the plan was to shoot some rabbits’, but they found none, and instead decided to look for ducks to shoot instead.
Mr Phillips said: “The swan was shot and I took a shot to put it out of its misery. I aimed for its head but I missed. The gun was passed around.
“I regret bitterly that I became involved. Things got out of hand. This was not a prank – it was a big mistake.”
The court heard that before the shooting of the swans commenced, there was a discussion about whether it should be done or not. The court heard that the 13-year-old had said: “I think it would be funny as f**k.”
Defending the 13-year-old boy, Katy Hanson, said: “He is only 13 and has no previous convictions. He’s never been in trouble, and it’s incredibly sad to see someone so young here today.
“What he says, is he had gone shooting and assumed that it was okay to have an air rifle. He not got a great knowledge of the law, and trusted adults not to lead him astray.
“He was with three people who were significantly older. They suggested shots should be taken at the swans and the gun was passed to him. He took one shot, and purposefully missed the swan.”
Ms Hanson continued: “He has ADHD and hyperactivity disorder. His mother is horrified by the incident and trusted [the adults] to look after him.
“This has had a huge impact on his life. He had difficulty sleeping and eating. He is in school, and finds things stressful.”
Magistrates imposed a 12 month referral order, and ordered that the 13-year-old pay £85 prosecution costs and £20 victim surcharge.
Magistrates then turned their attention to dealing with Phillips.
A report from the probation service said that he felt an ‘immense’ amount of peer pressure, and that if he was in this situation again he would call the RSPCA.
Defence solicitor, David Williams, said: “My client recognises the immense public disapproval and upset that his participation has caused.
“Phillips took three to four shots to put the swan out of its misery. He did not shoot at any of the other swans, and was not in possession of the gun after he had done what I have described.”
Mr Williams commented on the fact that it has taken five months for the matter to come to court, and explained what has happened in Phillips’ life in that time. He said: “The public disapproval has manifested itself in worse ways.
“On March 10, my client’s family car was vandalised. It had on its bonnet, on one side from front to back and on one wheel arch, obscene words scratched on it. I won’t repeat the obscenities, but one was ‘swan killer’.”
The chair of the bench told Phillips: “This is a difficult and distressing case. The community feel very strongly about the case, and we believe it has crossed the custody threshold.”
Magistrates sentenced Phillips for four months imprisonment, suspended for a total of 12 months. He must complete 150 hours of unpaid work and complete a 15 day rehabilitation activity requirement. He must also pay £85 prosecution costs and £115 victim surcharge.
A trial date for Mattson was set, and will take place on Wednesday, April 19 at 10am at Haverfordwest Magistrates’ Court.
He was released on bail until then, on condition that he made no contact with prosecution witnesses.