A PUNGENT yet unidentifiable smell -the sort that lingers in the nostrils for hours -is the first sign of the horrors that await.

But that is only the start of your ordeal.

Stepping inside the shed where hundreds of animals were discovered dead and emaciated at a farm near Middleton St George, near Darlington, is a harrowing experience that is not easy to forget.

Animal carcasses, emaciated to the point where they simply look like balls of unidentifiable fluff, have been taken out of filthy pens by RSPCA inspectors.

Dozens of dirty cages, stacked neatly one on top of the other, fill the shed in regimented rows, as if in juxtaposition to their disgusting state. All of them contain rotting hay or sawdust, and animal excrement coats the floor of some cages.

The shed itself is covered with animal faeces, broken cages and rotting straw.

Animal welfare officers recovered 264 mice, rabbits and guinea pigs from two sheds a quarter of a mile from the main buildings at Low Goosepool Farm, near Middleton St George, yesterday.

They were called after the alarm was raised by the farm owner, who leased the sheds to a South Durham pet shop proprietor.

Eight cats that were still alive were also found and taken to an animal sanctuary.

The discovery, which RSPCA inspectors called particularly harrowing, reinforces the North-East's reputation as the worst in the country for animal cruelty.

Far from being a region of animal lovers, a very small minority have been responsible for sickening acts of savagery and neglect.

The RSPCA is doing its best.

Many have been brought to account. People such as Lee Howard, who was given a six-month suspended prison sentence after he admitted causing unnecessary suffering to 13 horses, four dogs, 11 hens and a rabbit.

He left the animals to starve at Bank Top Stables, in Trimdon, County Durham. RSPCA inspectors, who were called to the stables in May last year, found animals in various stages of decomposition.

Other shocking examples of animal cruelty in the past year include a puppy boiled alive, a horse that was shot by thugs and blinded, and a rabbit that was left to starve to death in Darlington.

And it is a problem that shows no signs of abating.

In 2004, 70,000 pets were tortured or killed in the UK. Cases of mistreatment rose by 78 per cent.

The Government has promised that animal welfare workers will get powerful new legislation to fight cruelty and neglect.

An animal welfare Bill, which will come into effect in April next year, will give the RSPCA and police powers to help them stamp out neglect and cruelty before an animal is harmed.

It will put responsibility on all owners to ensure animals are kept in humane conditions, with adequate food, water, shelter and veterinary care, as well as protecting them against pain, injury and distress.

Owners breaching the rules face up to 51 weeks in jail, a fine of up to £20,000 and a lifetime ban on keeping animals.

The Bill, which brings together more than 20 pieces of animal welfare legislation, is the culmination of years of campaigning by the RSPCA for the Government to review the law, which has remained unchanged for nearly a century.

It also came after The Northern Echo's six-year Animal Watch campaign to rid the region of its appalling record of animal cruelty.

For animal welfare organisations, the new powers cannot come soon enough.

Superintendent Rachel Jones, a regional officer for the RSPCA, said: "I think legislation is absolutely necessary.

"A lot of the work we have done over the years, and the work smaller organisations have done, highlights the huge gap in the law which allows people to let animals suffer."

Perhaps then they will be spared more sights like the horrors I saw yesterday.