RSPCA say they can't investigate Oxford-educated QC over dog attack

RSPCA say they CAN’T investigate Oxford-educated QC, 49, who was in charge of dog that fatally injured Freddie the seal in savage Thames-side attack because ‘NO animal welfare offence was committed’ – as she claims police have told her ‘she’s in the clear’

  • Rebecca Sabben-Clare QC, 49, lives in a large mansion not far from where the shocking incident took place 
  • She and onlookers rushed over to release dog’s clamped jaws, but Freddie later had to be put down by vets
  • Ms Sabben-Clare studied at New College and was named a leading English silk in 2021 Legal 500 Directory 
  • Her lawyers said she contacted police and the RSPCA after the attack and was told no crime had occurred 
  • Earlier, the Met Police told MailOnline that officers were investigating and ‘looking to speak to dog’s owner’
  • Charity today explained it can only investigate offences involving cruelty – not any relating to dangerous dogs

The RSPCA today said they cannot investigate the Oxford-educated barrister who was in charge of the dog that fatally injured Freddie the seal because the incident did not involve deliberate cruelty, while the barrister said police had also told her she is ‘in the clear’. 

Lawyers for Rebecca Sabben-Clare QC, 49, said yesterday that she made contact with police after Sunday’s attack and was referred to the RSPCA, and was told no offence had occurred.

The animal charity today explained that it can only investigate offences under the Animal Welfare Act which involved cruelty to animals, whereas it is up to the police to manage those involving dangerous dogs. 

Yesterday, the Met Police said officers were investigating the death and ‘looking to identify witnesses and to speak to the owner of the dog involved’. MailOnline has contacted the force this morning to ask for an update. 

Ms Sabben-Clare lives in a £5.8million house with her husband William, 57, not far away from Hammersmith Bridge, where the incident took place.

Distressing images showed the seal being mauled by a brown cross-breed at around 12.45pm on Sunday. 

Ms Sabben-Clare, whose father was headmaster of Winchester College, rushed over with other onlookers to release the dog’s clamped jaws, but Freddie later had to be put down after suffering horrendous injuries. Pictures showed her with a lead attached to her belt.            

Rebecca Sabben-Clare QC, 49, (pictured middle holding the brown cross-breed dog after it attacked Freddie the Seal) lives in a £5.8million house not far from where the incident took place 

The animal, known as Freddie Mercury for his crowd-pleasing antics, was severely injured after the attack and had to be put down. Pictured is a photographer pulling at the dog’s collar after Miss Sabben-Clare also tried to get it away from the seal 

The animal (pictured with an injured flipper following the mauling, has also been seen upstream by Teddington and Richmond 

The RSPCA said today: ‘We are deeply saddened by what happened to Freddie and this highlights why it is important to keep dogs on leads around wild animals.

‘We investigate animal welfare offences. Dog attacks on animals would become an animal welfare offence if it was done deliberately. If no offences have been committed under the Animal Welfare Act we are unable to take incidents further. Offences involving dogs out of control are investigated by the police.

‘In this instance, we spoke to the owner and as this was not a case of deliberate cruelty, it is not an offence we would investigate. The police are continuing to look into this and we are happy to assist them if needed.’

Ms Sabben-Clare studied at New College Oxford and was named a leading English silk in the 2021 Legal 500 Directory. Her father, James, was headmaster of Winchester College from 1985 to 2000. 

A specialist in commercial law, she has been described as ‘incredibly bright’ and ‘very talented’, praising her ability as ‘a fearless advocate’ who is ‘very cool, calm and easy to work with’. 

Previous cases have included one relating to Carillion, the construction company that went bust in 2018 in the UK’s biggest ever commercial liquidation, and work representing a Middle Eastern government over oil interests. 

Ms Sabben-Clare studied at New College Oxford and was named a leading English silk in the 2021 Legal 500 Directory

The person in control of a dog that chases or attacks farm animals can be fined up to £1,000, or £2,500 if the offence was deliberate. Similar fines apply to attacks on certain protected wild animals.

Farmers, police and conservationists have reported an increase in dog attacks on wild animals and livestock, with the trade association for British sheep farming today blaming an increase in inexperienced owners who have bought puppies during lockdown.

Recent attacks that have been pictured include a husky which was shot to death after a ‘killing rampage’ in the Cotswolds and pregnant ewes being ravaged in fields about Flushing in Cornwall. Meanwhile, earlier this year a dog owner was fined £500 after their Irish setter puppy mauled a deer in Richmond Park, breaching Royal Parks regulations.

Well-wishers have taken to Twitter to share their tributes of the Hammersmith seal, nicknamed Freddie Mercury for his crowd-pleasing antics, with Paul Brown writing: ‘RIP young fella’.


A dog is dangerously out of control if it injures someone or there are grounds to fear it will injure someone, whether or not it actually does so, in a public place, a private place or in the owner’s home.   

Courts can decide that a dog is out of control if it attacks someone’s animal or an animal’s owner fears they could be injured stopping this happening.

The punishment is an unlimited fine or up to six months in jail (or both).

However the law states it is not exhaustive. If a dog could be ‘factually deemed to be acting in a way that could be termed ‘dangerously out of control’, for example attacking livestock’, a prosecution may still be brought.

Source: CPS

Josh Fraser tweeted: ‘RIP #freddietheseal people who own dogs that attack people/wildlife should be banned from owning pets for life, first a dear in Richmond park, now a poor seal in Hammersmith, when will it stop? When a child dies? Will they just fine the owner and move on? This needs to be fixed.’

Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s former director of communications, wrote: ‘So sad to hear that the beautiful seal that took up residence near Hammersmith Bridge had to be put down after being savaged by a dog. There were signs up asking dog walkers to keep them on leads.’ 

The Met told MailOnline on Tuesday: ‘Police are investigating the death of a seal after it was injured by a dog on the River Thames near Hammersmith Bridge.

‘Officers attended the location at approximately 12:39 hours on Sunday 21 March along with colleagues from the London Fire Brigade.

‘They recovered the young pup from the river bank and it was taken to a rescue centre for treatment, but had to be put down later, due to injuries sustained in the incident. Officers are looking to identify witnesses and to speak to the owner of the dog involved. Enquiries continue.’   

Freddie’s death has prompted widespread calls for dog owners and dog walkers to keep their animals on leads if they cannot be controlled – as others called for the one responsible for the seal attack to be prosecuted. 

Julia Llewellyn Smith wrote: ‘Goodbye to Freddie Mercury, our beloved Hammersmith Bridge mascot. Savaged by a dog the irresponsible owner had not put on its lead. ‘

Josh Luke Davis wrote ‘keep your dogs on their leads’, while another Twitter user added: ‘The owner should be found and prosecuted’.  

Witnesses described Sunday’s attack as ‘savage’ and said the dog would not let go despite repeated attempts by passers-by

Four onlookers, including a vet, repeatedly tried to pry the dog’s jaw off the young seal but it refused, leaving severe wounds. Ms Sabben-Clare was seen with a lead around her belt 

Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, said the tragedy highlighted a serious problem in the countryside, where he says inexperienced dog owners who bought their pets during lockdown are driving an increase in attacks, particularly during the current lambing season.

He told MailOnline: ‘It seems like there has been an increase in the numbers of attacks and the severity of those attacks as well. 

‘The main reason is that during lockdown a lot more people have been using the open farmed countryside for their exercise than previously, because a lot more of the organised venues are closed. They are not used to coming across livestock. Even just chasing ewes can cause them to abort their young. 

‘There has been an expansion in dog ownership. I’m worried that we’ve not seen the worst of it as a lot of these dogs have not come to maturity and maybe others will get fed up of them. A lot of these people get dogs without any real knowledge of how to look after them.’ 

Data from Dogs Trust shows ‘buy a puppy’ Google searches have rocketed by 115 per cent since the start of the first lockdown a year ago, while Pets4Homes recorded a 51 per cent increase in the demand for puppies since the beginning of the pandemic. 

However, a recent survey of dog owners commissioned by insurers NFU Mutual in January 2021 revealed that 64 per cent of dog owners are letting their pets roam free in the countryside, despite half of owners surveyed admitting their dog doesn’t always come back when called. 

Well-wishers today took to Twitter to share their tributes to Freddie, including Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s former director of communications

Today there were widespread calls for dog owners to keep their animals on leads if they cannot be controlled – as others called for the one responsible for the seal attack to be prosecuted

There has been a large spike in attacks on deer in London’s Royal Parks, with four stags and does killed in attacks since March 2020. There have been 83 incidents of dogs chasing the herds – a big increase on previous years – according to the manager of Richmond Park. 

In January, a £200,000-a-year marketing executive was fined £600 after his Irish setter mauled a deer to death in Richmond Park. 

Franck Hiribarne, 44, told magistrates he was training his young puppy in the south-west London park in October last year when the pet started chasing a deer.

The frightened deer ran into the road where it was hit by a car before being mauled by the Irish setter. It was later put to death. 

A Royal Parks spokesman, said: ‘We urge visitors to exercise particular caution when walking their dogs in Bushy and Richmond Parks, two deer parks that are home to over a 1,000 free-roaming deer.

‘Unfortunately, since March 2020 there have been 83 incidents recorded of dogs chasing deer in these parks and four deer have died as a result. Only recently a 10-year-old boy was injured after an out-of-control dog caused a deer stampede in Bushy Park. 

‘It’s illegal for a dog to chase a deer in the Royal Parks and owners may face prosecution if caught. Puppies and new dogs should be kept on a lead at all times until they are fully trained, and the owner is fully aware of their temperament.’ 

Last week, a 61-year-old woman from Hampshire was ordered to pay a farmer £500 after her dog killed a sheep at West Tisted Manor Estate near Ropley. 

Police officers from Hampshire Constabulary’s Country Watch team warned all dog walkers to ‘keep dogs on leads in rural areas or face possible prosecution’.     

Cases of dogs attacking humans are also on the rise in some areas, with nearly 800 incidents reported to West Midlands Police in 2020, the highest for at least three years.

Two toddlers were attacked by a dog in Saltley, Birmingham, on February 8, reported Birmingham Live. A 25-year-old woman also tragically died after a dog attack in Kitts Green on February 5 2021.

The onlookers who had stopped to help held the seal in place until the emergency services could get there. Young Freddie was left with severe wounds and had to be taken to South Essex Wildlife Hospital with the help of the London Fire Brigade

Witnesses of Sunday’s incident including photographer Duncan Phillips tried to pull the dog off the seal but could not intervene early enough to save the animal.  

The 55-year-old, who was shooting images of the seal when it was attacked on the slipway, told MyLondon: ‘It was quite a vicious attack. The dog just wouldn’t let go.

‘It wouldn’t let go despite repeated attempts by members of the public to separate the animals.’

The British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) sent medics to treat its severe wounds before taking it to the South Essex Wildlife Hospital (SEWH) in Tilbury by boat with help from the Port of London Authority and London Fire Brigade. 

But vets said in an update on Monday: ‘Ourselves and the experts at British divers marine life rescue have consulted several specialist marine and orthopedic vets and as we strongly suspected having taken X-rays this morning the prognosis is extremely poor. 

‘Freddie’s flipper is fractured and the joint dislocated. Seals do not take anaesthetic well as they have a dive reflex and don’t breathe. 

‘We suspect the infection is spreading and with the other bite wounds to his body he is very miserable. At this stage we believe the only ethical and fair option we have is to end his suffering.’ 

The BDMLR added in a statement: ‘Unfortunately, after an X-ray this afternoon, our worst fears were confirmed, and the seal not only sustained a broken bone, but also a dislocation, damage to his joint, ligaments and nerves that made it impossible to treat and return him to the wild.

‘We contacted a number of marine mammal veterinarians in the UK and the Netherlands, including an orthopaedic surgeon, and sadly based on their experiences the decision is that he needed to be euthanised for his welfare. 

‘We would be unable to release a seal back into the wild with one flipper, if amputation was an option, as we have a firm policy on not putting animals into captivity, and the seal’s welfare must be put first and foremost.’ 

Recent attacks that have been pictured include a husky which was shot to death after a ‘killing rampage’ in the Cotswolds

Gloucestershire Constabulary’s rural crime team apologised for sharing the graphic images but said it was necessary to educate the public 

A sheep savaged in South Yorkshire earlier this year. PC Elizabeth Wilson, a rural crime officer, said: ‘Over the recent months, we have seen an increase in incidents where sheep have either been injured or killed by dogs off the lead when walking through fields’

Pregnant ewes being ravaged in fields about Flushing in Cornwall during a dog attack earlier this month. Similar attacks have been happening for generations but farmers say they have recently become more frequent 

A businessman has been fined £600 after his dog attacked a Richmond Park deer (pictured) which eventually had to be put down due to injuries after it was hit by a car trying to escape

Alan Knight OBE, the organisation’s CEO, said: ‘Freddie was a wild seal and after the ferocious attack on Sunday he suffered a serious broken and dislocated flipper. We contacted one of the UK’s leading orthopaedic surgeons, and he said that unfortunately the only option was to euthanise the seal.’ 

The vet who helped in the incident was reportedly bitten three times by the scared seal while trying to rescue him and a male cyclist who also stopped to help was ‘headbutted’ by the seal as they tried to hold him in place until he could get treatment. 

A charity spokesman said in the wake of the attack: ‘At around 12.45pm today, on Sunday 21st March, a young resident common seal, in the Hammersmith area of the River Thames, was attacked by a dog leaving it with severe wounds and needing urgent vet treatment.

‘The out of control dog was recalled by the person in charge of it who then left the scene, but thankfully a quick thinking passer who saw the attack was able to catch the seal and hold onto it so help could be found.

‘Our rescue hotline coordinator called out local Thames BDMLR medics and with the assistance of a local vet, we were able to source a cage and contain the seal safely.’

Freddie had originally been rescued as a new-born last year in the Netherlands but he was rescued again in France and now twice in the UK  

A warning piece of paper tied to a traffic cone at his favourite sunbathing hotspot reads: ‘Stop! My name is Freddie Mercury. I have been rescued multiple times but I would like to stay here.

‘I am healthy – but was almost attacked by a dog yesterday. It scared me. Please no dogs or people beyond top of ramp.’

Animal lovers who were appalled by the attack have taken to social media to criticise the dog’s owner.

One has said: ‘I hope this owner is dragged into court. Sick to death of seeing these horrendous attacks. Stop making excuses for these dogs and irresponsible owners. Thankful for those who helped.’

The veterinary team move injured Freddie from the dog cage to a more suitable carrier before he is transported to hospital

The British Divers Marine Life Rescue sent medics before taking it to the South Essex Wildlife Hospital in Tilbury by boat

Another added: ‘It’s the fault of the dog owners that have no control over their animals. Unfortunately It’s in most dogs nature to give chase, as most think it’s a great game until gets out of hand.

‘Farmers have the right to shoot dogs worrying sheep or other livestock on their land.

‘I’ve seen so many dogs go after horses which is not only dangerous to horse and rider but dog could have it’s brains kicked out.

‘Again it’s irresponsible owners who either cant be bothered or too lazy to train their dogs.’

One man said: ‘The owner needs to be brought before the courts and fined. Then made to pay for Freddie’s veterinary bills and rehabilitation.’ 

Others suggested the owner should make a contribution to the South Essex Wildlife Hospital’s charity to help cover the cost of the treatment.

One said: ‘I hope Freddie makes a quick and full recovery. If you can’t trust your dog or it has no recall keep it on a leash.

‘I really hope the owner makes a contribution towards Freddie’s treatment and keeps the dog firmly on its lead in future.’

The Met Police said: ‘Police were called at approximately 12.39pm on Sunday, 21 March to reports of a seal in distress on the banks of the River Thames near Hammersmith Bridge.

‘Officers attended along with the London Fire Brigade. They recovered the animal which was taken to an animal rescue centre for treatment. The RSPCA has been informed.’ 

Seal sightings in the Thames are becoming increasingly common, thanks in part to increasing water quality. The London Zoo’s Thames Marine Mammal Survey has reported 117 sightings of seals in or by the river this year.

Freddie was carefully manoeuvred into a dog cage until help arrived and they could take him away in a more suitable carrier

Freddie, who was first rescued as a new-born in the Netherlands last year, was left with a nasty wound on his right flipper

A wounded Freddie Mercury awaits treatment and transport to the veterinary hospital after being attacked by a dog

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