Police have spoken of their disappointment after a judge freed four men convicted of horrific animal cruelty in Northern Ireland.

They included a father and two sons who kept equipment including traps to train fighting dogs to rip cats and badgers apart.

The defendants were handed suspended six-month sentences at Belfast Crown Court and disqualified from keeping animals.

Video footage recovered from a mobile phone belonging to one of those convicted showed dogs being set on a badger. In another, the same animals attacked a cat that had been cornered in a cage, tearing it to pieces.

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Detective Inspector Pete Mullan said: “We are very disappointed at the outcome. We fully respect the decision of the court but are disappointed nonetheless.

“This type of crime can receive a custodial sentence of up to two years and, given the horrific nature of this particular incident, we would have envisaged a sentence that would have acted as a greater deterrent.”

Jeremiah Kirkwood, and sons Chris and Wayne, from Belfast, admitted keeping animals for fighting. They also pleaded guilty to having equipment connected with animal fights including a dog harness and animal trap and causing unnecessary suffering to four puppies.

Jamie Morrow who the judge accepted had a “chaotic” family background, admitted keeping or training an animal, a female whippet cross Staffordshire bull terrier, for use in connection with an animal fight.

All offences took place in November 2011.

Police uncovered the gang after seizing Morrow’s phone for an unconnected reason. On it they found three video clips from 2011 which depicted four dogs attacking and killing a cat, the sentencing judge said.

Judge McColgan added: “Dogs are blooded in this way in order to train them to fight with other animals in blood sports, including badgers, foxes or deer.”

A vet who examined adult dogs later seized from the Kirkwood and Morrow properties said they were the ones seen killing a cat in video clips.

Mr Mullan said the cat was being “literally torn apart by dogs”.

As a result of the gruesome find, two further police searches were carried out at the Kirkwood home in Belfast, and at Morrow’s home in the city.

At the Kirkwood property, police found kennels with adult bull lurcher dogs inside, the court was told. Animal cruelty experts noted injuries consistent with the type expected during fights.

Four bull terrier puppies, just three weeks old, were found under a heat lamp without their mother. Their tails had been docked, the judge said.

An animal trap, surgical cutting equipment and prescribed veterinary medicine for treating wounds were also recovered.

Another dog, called Princess, was found at Morrow’s home, Judge McColgan added.

The four defendants were surrounded by prison officers as they were led into the dock in handcuffs. They were dressed in tracksuits and at least one wore an earring. A crowd of supporters in muscle T-shirts and tracksuits sat in the public gallery.

Jeremiah Kirkwood is married with four sons. He made 17 court appearances between 1984 and last year for 24 offences, mostly traffic-related but also involving dishonesty and disorderly behaviour. He has been dependent on alcohol since his 30s, the judge said.

Wayne Kirkwood has three convictions for causing actual bodily harm, making threats to kill and possession of an offensive weapon. He has learning difficulties and a history of cannabis use.

Judge McColgan sentenced the men to six-months in prison or young offender centres, suspended for two years. They were also disqualified from keeping, owning or controlling animals for 10 years.

She said the adult dogs would be destroyed and the puppies have been found homes.

Democratic Unionist Stormont assembly member Jim Wells said: “The public will be outraged that the Kirkwoods, who were involved in horrendous acts of animal cruelty, were let off today with suspended sentences.

“This was the first test of new animal welfare legislation which for the first time permitted the court to impose a custodial sentence for those involved in high levels of cruelty.

“The judge in this case totally failed to send out a clear message that society will no longer tolerate the torture of animals.

“This sentence should be immediately referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions for review on the basis that it is much too lenient given the very disturbing facts surrounding this dreadful case.”

The Belfast Telegraph