A GREYHOUND killer faces up to five years in prison after admitting he buried hundreds of dogs behind his home.

David Smith appeared before Durham Magistrates' Court, where he admitted disposing of dead dogs without a permit.

The prosecution was brought by the Environment Agency after police ruled that the 57-year-old would not face criminal charges in relation to the destruction of the dogs.

Magistrates could have imposed a maximum fine of £20,000 or six months in prison, but they took the decision to send him to Durham Crown Court instead. A judge has far greater sentencing powers - and the maximum punishment Smith now faces is five years in prison or an unlimited fine.

The Environment Agency brought the prosecution under regulations, introduced in 2000 following an EU directive, that are designed to reduce pollution.

Smith, 57, who said he has received up to 30 death threats, arrived early at the magistrates' court to avoid placard-bearing Greyhound Action protestors.

He was taken away in a dark car after pleading guilty to a single charge of disposing of waste - dead dogs - without a permit under the Pollution Prevention and Control Regulations.

When the story broke last July, Smith was said to have killed and buried up to 10,000 greyhounds behind his home in Northdene Terrace, Seaham, County Durham, over many years.

But magistrates were told the figure was far lower, and that in the past couple of years Smith had been destroying "around two a week" for a fee of £10.

Trevor Cooper, prosecuting for the Environment Agency, told the court: "It should be made absolutely clear that the agency is not prosecuting Mr Smith for destroying the dogs. The case is about the unlawful burial of the dogs in the ground.

"The Environment Agency cannot say how many dogs were buried.

"This was a commercial operation and he was burying the dogs for money, and that activity had been going on for a number of years."

Peter Schofield, defending, told the court that people took stricken dogs to Smith and paid £10 to have them destroyed.

He told the court: "It has always been Mr Smith's contention that the numbers are nowhere near those reported.

"He assisted those that had sick or injured animals, and in the last 18 months the numbers increased to the extent of a few hundred.

"Mr Smith was in fact involved in the disposal of dogs within the community, with some extent, the acquiescence of the RSPCA, police and local authority.

"This was by no means a covert activity hidden from all."

He added that, rather than destroying healthy dogs, Smith put down those that were sick or unfit to race.

In a statement to the Environment Agency, Smith said that many years ago police would take stray and injured dogs to his father to be destroyed. Since then, people who could not afford vets' fees took brought him dogs.

Smith took over the task when his father retired, with the knowledge of the RSPCA and council, it was claimed.

Bench chairwoman Vivian Lowe said Smith had destroyed animals as a commercial business for a considerable length of time, and this had been escalating in recent years.

It posed a very high pollution risk, she added.

Following the hearing, a Durham Constabulary spokes-man said the force had no knowledge of dogs being taken to Smith's father.

He added that no complaints had been made before last July, "therefore no investigation was carried out".

A spokesman for the RSPCA said: "The RSPCA was not previously aware of any such offences perpetrated by David Smith or the reported number of dogs involved in this situation."

Easington District Council said it would comment on the case following sentencing.

Losing the race - Page 5