CHARGES of interfering with a badger sett have been dropped against a Crewe resident – and member of the Cheshire Forest hunt – as the trial was about to be heard in court.

The RSPCA decided to drop a private prosecution of two supporters of the Cheshire Forest hunt at a hearing at Chester Magistrates Court on Thursday, April 11.

Brian Nuttall, 79, from Holmes Chapel and Justin Schofield, 42, from Crewe were out with the Cheshire Forest hunt on March 3, 2012 near Crowton, in Cheshire, when they were filmed covertly by anti-hunting activists.

The RSPCA launched an investigation during which both men’s houses was raided by RSPCA and police officers.

Five dogs were removed and held for at least 10 months and both were subsequently summonsed by the RSPCA to face charges of interference with a badger sett.

Mr Schofield was also charged with an offence under the Animal Welfare Act, but that was dropped at an earlier stage.

At the hearing on Thursday the RSPCA confirmed it was offering no evidence to support the Badgers Act charges.

Defence costs of nearly £10,000 will be paid by the taxpayer.

On hearing that the prosecution had been dropped Brian Nuttall said: “It’s a huge relief that we won't have to go on trial but I was ready to fight the RSPCA if we had to.

“I did absolutely nothing wrong, yet these people took my dog, raided my house and caused me more than a year of worry. Now they have finally accepted the whole thing was nonsense, but they seem to be able to do anything they want.”

Tim Bonner, director of campaigns at the Countryside Alliance, said: “This is yet another example of the RSPCA abusing the criminal justice system to pursue its vendetta against members of the hunting community.

“Mr Nuttall and Mr Schofield were involved in perfectly legitimate activity and the evidence against them was always paper thin, yet for over a year they have had multiple criminal charges hanging over them.

“There is an ongoing debate about the RSPCA's abuse of the right of the individual to bring private prosecutions in the criminal courts and we will be raising this case, as we have others, with the relevant ministers.”

The RSPCA said it stood by its decision to initiate a prosecution against Nuttall and Schofield.

A spokesperson said: “The prosecution’s case rested on footage showing two men digging in an area where there was known to be an active badger sett nearby; as well as evidence from hunt monitors who witnessed the incident on March 3, 2012, and an expert’s report.

“Repeated attempts to arrange interviews with the defendants were unsuccessful and ultimately they refused to be interviewed. The RSPCA was not made aware at the time of the defendants’ version of events.

“Prosecution is always a last resort and only taken to prevent animal abuse and to ensure laws designed to protect animals are upheld.

“A crucial issue for the prosecution to prove in this case was the exact location where the digging occurred. However, three months later, the location was disputed by a defence expert and, following a further review of all the evidence, the RSPCA concluded there was no longer a realistic prospect of securing a conviction against either defendant.

“The RSPCA notified the defence and the court that it would be offering no evidence, which is the correct procedure to follow in these circumstances.

“In considering each case for prosecution, RSPCA prosecution case managers must be fair and objective in the conduct of their duties. In bringing prosecutions, the RSPCA seeks only to fulfil its charitable purposes by upholding laws which protect animals.

“It is extremely rare that RSPCA cases are withdrawn at this stage. All prosecutors will deal with dropped prosecutions from time to time, but this does not necessarily mean that those cases should not have been started in the first place.

“We agree with the Attorney General, who in a Parliamentary debate on 29 January 2013 said: “If someone was acquitted it doesn’t mean that the prosecution was wrong in principle.”

“In bringing prosecutions, the RSPCA seeks only to fulfil its charitable purposes by upholding laws which protect animals.”

The RSPCA’s legal and expert witness costs in this case were £6,200 including VAT.