A GANG who posed for a Facebook photograph holding up a fox killed by their dogs have been sentenced for animal welfare offences.

The six-strong group, all from Darlington, were caught as part of Operation Merlin which saw 69 police and RSPCA officers carry out dawn raids on homes in the town.

At an earlier court hearing, five of those charged; Brandon Coulton, 19, of Estoril Road South, Liam Crang, 19, of Brignall Moor Crescent, Marcus Hall, 20, of Neasham Road, Thomas Richardson, 20, of Pateley Moor Crescent, and Jack Tenwick, 19, of Westminster Road, pleaded guilty to being present at an animal fight.

The sixth, Damon Dodsworth, 19, of Burnside Road, pleaded guilty to two counts of failing to ensure an animal’s welfare, while Crang and Tenwick each admitted one count.

Crang also admitted to setting his dog on a hare in October last year.

When the group appeared at Darlington Magistrates’ Court for sentencing today (Tuesday, September 17) the court heard that in March 2011 they had allowed their dogs to chase and kill a fox and posed for a picture with the dead animal afterwards.

When officers raided the men’s homes last November they found that lurchers owned by Crang, Dodsworth and Tenwick were living in squalid conditions and bore fresh cuts and old scars.

District judge Adrian Lower said there was “no excuse” for failing to get treatment for the injured dogs and described the dead fox photograph as being “wholly distasteful”.

He added: “That photograph was uploaded to a Facebook account and the only explanation of that was that it was a celebration of what had happened and you wanted to impress people with what you had seen done.”

In mitigation the court heard that the men were all teenagers at the time of the offences, and that those who kept their dogs in poor conditions did so through failure to understand the animals’ needs.

All six were given a 12-month community order of 140 hours unpaid work and charged £160 in court costs and charges.

Crang, Dodsworth and Tenwick were banned from keeping dogs for ten years, while the other three were given a five-year ban.

Crang was also fined £200 for the hunting offence.

The dogs seized by the RSPCA will remain in the charity’s care until they can be rehomed.

Speaking after the case, RSPCA chief inspector Mark Gent said he was “really pleased” with the outcome.

He said: “What they were doing wasn’t poaching; it was setting one animal against another animal to fight – that is technically animal cruelty.”

He added: “The dogs involved in this kind of activity also suffer. They are injured in fights and those injuries are often untreated.

“They are taken back out when they aren’t fit. They live in squalor. Their basic needs are not met.”

Darlington neighbourhood police team inspector Mick Button said the operation and subsequent court action demonstrated how seriously the RSPCA and police took animal cruelty offences.