Sixty-five animals that were starved or stuck in mud had to be shot on a dairy farm near Lake Brunner on the West Coast in what was described as a "large-scale animal welfare disaster".
Ministry of Primary Industries prosecutor Grant Fletcher told Christchurch District Court Judge David Holderness today that "animal welfare investigators were shocked by what they saw".
Tjeerd Luutzen Ane Visser, 21, admitted two charges of failing to meet the physical health needs of his dairy cows.
The ministry alleged that he did not ensure 60 animals were not trapped in mud and did not ensure all 1300 animals were properly fed.
Judge Holderness said: "This is the most serious case of its type that I have experienced over many years."
The farm was owned by Wedderburn Properties Ltd, and Visser was responsible for the day-to-day running and the welfare of the animals.
The farm covered 4000 hectares, with 1300 stock, and Visser also farmed his own 600ha property nearby.
Fletcher told the court that Wedderburn Properties had gone into receivership. Several directors had left the country and were being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office.
He told the court that 65 animals had to be destroyed and many more were found dead in the swampy area of the farm.
Some collapsed in the truck as they were taken away from the farm, and at least three could not recover when they were sent to other farms. They had to be shot.
Visser was co-operative and distressed during the recovery operation by the ministry.
Defence counsel James Rapley said Visser was not supported by the company, was not paid his salary for a year and had to dip into his own money to pay for supplies such as feed.
He now owed $227,000 and faced bankruptcy. He had lost his farm.
The court was told he had undergone additional training and had employment with another South Island dairy industry operation.
A member of the public noticed the situation on the farm and alerted the authorities in August last year.
Investigators found cows that had been stuck in the mud for days and others that were starving and emaciated and were bellowing in distress. They had been eating bark, gorse tips, flax and rushes.
The ministry's recovery operation was halted for a time by heavy snow.
The farm was overstocked, and there had been no planning for the increased feed demands of heavily pregnant cows.
"Experienced staff consider Mr Visser to have been inexperienced with proper animal husbandry and out of his depth with the crisis that rapidly developed," Fletcher said.
Because of the mitigating factors, and the training he had done, the ministry did not seek imprisonment for Visser and did not seek to have him banned from having control of animals.
Rapley acknowledged it had been a "large-scale animal welfare disaster".
Visser had been relieved when the ministry became involved. The case highlighted the need to call for assistance when difficulties arose.
Judge Holderness told Visser his culpability was in not alerting the authorities and seeking help as the disaster developed around him. He seemed to have been treated poorly by his employer.
"But you knew this disaster was occurring and you knew the situation was getting worse by the day."
He declined the suggestion to grant a suspended sentence, but because of the "powerful mitigating factors" he accepted that he could impose a sentence of 175 hours' community work.
"I accept you are remorseful for what happened, but the fact remains you should have taken steps much earlier to avoid this catastrophe," the judge said.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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