The Cockfighters - A Criminalogical Aspect


The material upon which this work is based is a database of information collected from cockfighters all over the country. As one might imagine, getting people to freely talk about their participation in the crimes involved in cockfighting activity is not easy. Apart from certain of the advantages that I just happen to have, it might have been impossible. Initially one’s chief need is the confidence of the subjects, so that they may be assured that the information will not be disclosed to law enforcement agencies under any circumstances. This could be achieved because I am a consultant lawyer working full-time in animal-related law, and have acted in a consultancy capacity in a number of criminal cases involving chickens. The people involved in those cases were prepared to vouch integrity, so word got round the cockers that I was safe to talk to.

Secondly, there was the consideration that I have conducted this sort of research before in relation to offenders against the Badgers Act 1973, and there are links between the two types of offender in some cases. The goodwill generated amongst the badger offenders stood me in good stead when it came to the cockers. The same applied in a number of instances where dog-fighters and cockfighters were con­nected.

By no means was it all plain sailing. Some people, for their own purposes felt that obstacles should be put in my way, and one of these was a Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ staff member. The RSPCA appear to feel that it does not serve their interests to make known the fact that cockfighting is one of Britain’s biggest participant animal sports, because it reflects badly on their effort to control it. Personally I do not believe that is the case. Cockfighting is so ingrained, and so secretive that even a proper full- time animal ‘police force’ could not make any realistic progress against it.         

Be that as it may, an RSPCA Inspector from Yorkshire told a cocker that I was secretly working for the RSPCA, and at the end of the study “everyone in Peachey’s files will be nicked overnight”. By sheer luck, the man he told was a man who knew me personally through having been acquitted of another RSPCA allegation against him, and he promptly told me what had been said. He said he was telling everyone that it was not true, but nevertheless I did come across the allegation again in other parts of the country. It certainly was not true. If the Society cannot find out what they want to know from their own re­sources, that is no concern of mine.

One of the things that weighed most heavily on the minds of the subjects was that of security. They wanted to be sure that the material that they offered would be totally secure, and unavailable to the police and RSPCA. I devised a system that satisfied them all, and was totally covered against unauthorised access. Research material was collected in paper form using an outline questionnaire administered personally to the subjects. When these documents were completed they were taken back to the office and put onto the computer. The papers records were immediately destroyed. The disc containing the information was removed from the machine, and stored in a remote location when not in use. A search of my offices would scarcely have revealed that the project was in progress, let alone given any indication of who was involved. By the time this book is published the disc containing the data will be permanently archived in such a way and location that only I could recover it for further use.

The cockers themselves divided into two distinct camps of opin­ion. One group thought that it was a very bad idea indeed to bring to public notice the cockfighting community in this country, although they did not mind having it written about in the historical context. This attitude was prevalent amongst the Oxford Club members, perhaps because many of them had a good deal more to lose than the ordinary cocker. The other group thought that it was a good idea because this is the only modern work on current cockfighting activity. They feel that its appearance in print would serve to raise an emphatic two- fingered gesture to the authorities to let them know that absolutely nothing will stop the cockers in the same way that absolutely nothing will stop the badger-diggers or the dog-fighters.

Away from the actual cockers, news of this research has been generally welcomed by responsible animal welfare organisations, such as the Poultry Club of Great Britain and the Rare Breeds Poultry Society. Their officers feel that this is a legitimate research topic which can only do good by bringing to public attention the activities of people who are harming chickens for their own version of sport.

Personally I have found it a very interesting topic. Whilst I have no sympathy with animal offenders, I have been intrigued by what I have discovered and feel that it is knowledge that is a worthwhile con­tribution to criminological research at large. If any party does not like it, or feels that it is contrary to their interests, that is their problem, not mine.

The Analysis

95% of the people involved in cockfighting, directly or indirectly are male. All of the women in the survey are involved because they are married to cockers, or living with them in stable or semi-stable relationships. Of the 5% of women very few actually handle fighting birds. Most are mere spectators and supporters. In some part this may be attributable to an attitude prevalent amongst the Lancashire and Cheshire cockers, but found elsewhere, and exemplified by this man from Manchester.

We don’t have any women anywhere around our birds. My wife doesn’t even visit them. Cockfighting is a manly sport. It’s no place for a woman.

As mentioned elsewhere, there is no rule of the Oxford Club that prohibits women members. There have been women members in the past, but there are none at present, and certainly from what I know, very few woman are sufficiently active and respected to warrant consideration for future membership.

The average age of the cockfighter is 39 years. By any criminological assessment, that is astonishingly high. Previous research has shown the average badger-digger to be 27 years old (Peachey: 1991), whilst it is well known and long established by numerous authorities that the average burglar is only about 15 years old. From the participants point of view cockfighting is one of those activities that can continue into old age because it is not physically taxing, and there is some indication that it is being taken up by older men who have dabbled with it in their youth, and have now returned to it after becoming too old for physically arduous activities. Averages can be deceptive through being swayed by a few very old or very young individuals, but that is not the case here because the median age group is 35 to 45 years. This is an interesting form of confirmation of the attitude that cockfighting is serious sport, not reprehensible criminality, in the eyes of those who take part.

77% of cockfighters are married, and another 10% have been married but no longer are due to divorce, separation or through the death of their spouse. None of them report marital breakdown due to their cockfighting. The unmarried element are mostly young people who have not got around to it yet. 75% have children, and the average number of children per cock- fighting family with children is 2.52, which is slightly above the national average of 2.4.

65% of the survey are living in their own houses as owner-occupiers.

20% have accommodation tied to their employments, which are mostly as hunt staff, gamekeepers, and farm labourers. The remainder live in rented accommodation or with their parents. The ‘living with parents’ group comprises so few individuals as to be not worth quantifying.

Another surprising finding is that a negligible number are hard-core unemployed. Only about 5%, approximately half the national percentage for the population as a whole, were out of work at the time they answered the survey. Of that 5% nearly all had been employed within the past twelve months, and all expected to return to employment in the near future. Of the occupations revealed, they varied from local government officers to hunt servants, from construction workers to racing industry employees. In­cluded in the list are a Master Butcher, a nature reserve warden, several pest controllers, a tree surgeon, lawyers, a Registered Medical Practitioner, media staff, a leather worker and two artists. There is no discernible pattern of employment, but the overwhelming majority have work of some sort or are retired from work. A number are what might be described as being of independent means, and for our purposes they are not included amongst the unemployed. One particular subject may be fairly described as a major criminal. He does no honest work, but co-ordinates robberies for a share of the proceeds.

The average cockfighter may thus be seen to be a middle-aged married man with two or three children in a secure relationship, who is in regular employment, and who is very likely to be an owner-occupier. This analysis of an average offender is completely unprecedented in any other type of offence. The average criminal offender is an unemployed teenager with few familial or societal constraints. This applies to relatively few cockfighters, and where it does they appear to live in the urban north.

The previous criminal convictions of the subjects was of great interest, but difficult to obtain on a reliable basis. Some flatly refuse to answer the questions posed in this area, whilst others would only offer sketchy details. Another difficulty in self-reporting studies is that subjects are notoriously bad at telling researchers the full scale of their misdeeds, especially when they include offenses generating public outrage, such as sexual offences. After much persuasion I am satisfied that reasonably reliable responses were obtained from 50% of the subjects surveyed, so the following results are extracted from that 50% only. The previous convictions were categorised broadly into, thefts (which includes burglaries), criminal damage, offences of violence to the person, and poaching and environmental of­fenses. No interest was taken in minor road traffic matters.

30% of the survey had never been in any trouble with the law before.

48% had at least one previous conviction for an offence of dishonesty. 25% had been convicted of criminal damage offences but it was noticeable that in almost every case these offences were committed as teenagers, often many years previously.

58% had a previous conviction for violence. Offences recorded included attempted murder, grievous bodily harm, numerous assaults occasioning actual bodily harm, and a variety of assaults upon police officers. Violence predominates amongst those with convictions.

35% reported convictions for poaching and related offences. When set against the population as a whole this is a high figure, because many offenders have no interest in rural animal activities. As will be seen at a later stage, many cockers are also involved in legitimate rural field sports pur­suits, which tend to overflow into offending areas a little too easily. Only 18% of those with convictions had a ‘full house’ of thefts, assaults, damage and poaching.

Perhaps the most telling statistic is that only 0.5% had been previously convicted of an offence in connection with cockfighting, and all of this handful of individuals had been fighting gamefowl all their lives, before and since conviction. All said that in spite of having been caught once, it was only through the activities of an informant, which would never be allowed to happen again. They felt, with considerable justification, that they had little to fear from the conventional activities of the police and RSPCA. One group told me that it was not uncommon to see the village policeman at their Sunday morning gypsy matches.

Some attempt was made to determine the racial/ethnic origin of cock fighters, but the result shows little that is remarkable. The overwhelming majority are white British, with about 10% of Asian extraction, but nearly all concentrated in immigrant areas in London, Birmingham, Leicester, Cambridge, and Bradford, with participants in other areas with substantial Asian populations. The ethnic group that was conspicuously missing was the black British. No black cockfighter was interviewed, and it was suggested that there are very few indeed. A black veterinary surgeon of my acquaintance told me that cockfighting is not a black peoples’ sport in this country, although there are some black dog-fighters.

Questions about any professed religious affiliation were generally met amongst the white British subjects with incredulity, although I did find one Mormon, and a man who said that he followed Paganism. I asked if there was any religious link between Paganism and cockfighting, but was assured that there was not. It was just a coincidence that certain Pagan rituals involve chickens. There are a smattering of Roman Catholics, but by and large the answer to the question on religion was ‘C of E’.

Generally, educational attainment was not a common attribute of those surveyed. Only 8% had academic qualifications up to professional level, such as doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers. A further 30% had a variety of vocational qualifications, amongst which were found Registered Farriers, Heavy Goods Vehicle Licence holders, plasterers, carpenters, bricklayers, roofers, farm staff, and clerical staff. The remaining 62% had a very few G.C.E. ‘0’ Levels, or no qualifications at all. The relatively new G.C.S.E. system has not yet had time to filter through into the survey. It appears that the survey subjects generally reflect the educational position as a whole, except perhaps that there is a slightly higher percentage of professionally qualified people than in the population as a whole.

As cockfighting is an animal related activity, it comes as no surprise to find that almost everyone connected with it takes part in some other kind of animal sport as well. Only 7% of the survey were pure cockfighters, having nothing whatever to do with any other animal activities. Some of these are older members of the Oxford Club. Indeed, one of the most senior of these people described hunting as cruel, because dogs did it for their master, whereas cocks did it because they wanted to. It is hard to avoid commenting that he does not understand very much about hunting. All respondents were asked whether or not they were involved in, either regularly or occasionally, hunting with hounds, shooting live quarry, coursing, falconry, deer stalking, ferreting, fishing, or terrier-work, all of which are lawful. In addition they were asked if they were involved in the illegal activities of dog-fighting, badger-digging and baiting, quail fight­ing, and bare-knuckle fighting. Bare-knuckle fighting was added as a question at the last minute when it was mentioned that a good deal of it still takes place in East Anglia, both amongst gypsies and the local population, and often in contests between the two. As it turned out, 5% of cockers know something about bare-knuckling, almost all in East Anglia, but occasion­ally elsewhere.

The response to the animal sports questions were as follows:

25% of cockers are followers of hounds, and most of those are followers of foxhounds. None reported being interested in stag hunting although a very few had been once. Equally a very few were beaglers, and one keenly followed mink hounds.

25% shoot live quarry, either vermin or rough shooting, or driven game. None reported being keen wildfowlers, albeit again a very few had been out once or twice.

45% are involved in coursing with greyhounds and lurchers, and nearly all confess to doing so illegally on land where they do not have permission. It was reported by several reliable respondents that people were giving up illegal coursing in favour of cockfighting because it was much easier to stay undetected. Coursing is by far the largest related activity group to cockfighting.

8% are falconers or go out with another falconer.

Only 4% are deer stalkers, 25% work ferrets, and 22% are anglers.

30% are terrier-men, and there is a 65% overlap here with those who follow hounds.

35% of the terrier-men/cockers are independent terrier workers, mostly from the northern areas.

A notable 17% are dogfighters or ex-dogfighters.

Those who count themselves as ex-dog fighters have mostly given it up because of the advent of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, and in some cases have taken up cockfighting instead, rather than in addition. Several said that having fighting dogs was difficult to conceal from nosey neighbours and the authorities whereas birds were easy. Most people who are not in the sport would not know a Shamo from a Rhode Island Red.

10% confessed to badger-digging or baiting, but none of these were in the eastern counties where there are relatively few badgers. The badger-digging cockers come from south-east Lancashire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, and Derbyshire.

5% are participants in quail fighting, and in every case are either Asians or who participate with Asians. Quail fighting that is nothing to do with the Asian and Far East immigrant community is almost non-existent. Multiple participation in animal sports is very common.

40% of the survey reported taking part in at least three different ones. The highest number of positive responses was nine, with several more taking part in more than five different sports. Characteristically the five mentioned would be hunting, shooting, fishing, coursing and ferreting.

In no small part due to the activities of the large coursing section, some 50% of the respondents are habitual offenders against animal and countryside law apart from their involvement in cockfighting.

The next set of questions relate to current cockfighting activity. The average time that the respondents had been involved in the sport was 20 years. As it can be seen above that the average cockfighter is aged 39, this indicates that the sport tends to be taken up at about the age of 20 years. The findings very much reinforce the impression that I gained during the study. Cockfighting comes later in life after other things have been tried and discarded. The exceptions tend to be those who learned the sport from their fathers. These amounted to 25% of the survey, and generally they started around the ages of 12 to 15 years. In summary form the findings are:

80% of cockers have overt displays relating to cockfighting in their houses, such as prints and paintings, cockfighting books, spurs displayed in cabinets, and various other bits and pieces relating to the sport. When assimilating that piece of information it is interesting to remember that the average cocker is a married man with two or three children. This means that most are quite happy to introduce their children to the culture of the sport from an early age, so that they are brought up with it.

20% of the survey do not breed or keep birds themselves. These are the retired, the new recruits, and the pure spectators which include a few wives of cockers, but no husbands of female cockers. It is surprising that the number of people who breed English/American/Irish strains both come out at 40% of the total survey, and 50% of those actually breeding.

Approximately 20% of the survey, or 25% of the breeders breed both types, but some fight only one type, merely using the other as out-crosses. However, the maps show that the breeding is quite heavily regionalised. In this country there are literally every sort of pugnacious fowl from around the world, including Old English, American, Irish, Spanish, French/Belgian, Malay, Asil, Shamo, African, Brazilian, Argentinean and odd specimens of various others. When I asked one joker what he had in the yard he described them to me as a varied collection of the species Gallus psychopathicus. After I saw some of his birds I could see what he meant! Their sole aim in life appeared to be to kill anything that moved.

The next area of interest is to try to assess the number of people actually taking part in the sport. This proved to be impossible, beyond saying that it is a very large number. 40% of the respondents confi­dently said that they knew in excess of 100 other cockfighters.

Other details obtained on this issue were:

The majority of the rest know 15 to 20, and the average local group contains between 5 and 15 members.

25% said that they will travel any distance to a fight, including travel to the continent.

Another 25% restrict themselves to about a 30 mile radius of their homes. The other 50% fall somewhere in between.

In spite of my best efforts my conclusion as to the numbers of active cockfighters in Britain is only a very rough estimate indeed. There are definitely no fewer than 5,000 and there may be about double that.

The average number present at a match falls in the range 5 to 15, with 8 being the most commonly reported number. The exception is gypsy matches, where the whole site will turn out on a Sunday morning to watch the sport.

In naked-heel matches the average bet is £50, but £100 is commonly staked. In steel matches, especially in Oxford Club Mains the bet is often only £5. Naked-heelers report having witnessed bets of £500, £1000, and £2000, especially in gypsy matches as remarked elsewhere.

The respondents were asked as a separate issue whether they fought with spurs, or naked heel, or both, but the answers fell exactly into line with their answers to the questions about what breeds they kept. About 50% fight with spurs, and 50% without, whilst 20% fight in both types of contest.

Maps & Bar Diagrams

On the pages which follow there appear a number of pictorial or statistical diagrams. These are intended to show the overall impression from the findings. In effect, they present in summary form the main totals and tendencies discussed.

This map shows the approximate main areas of activity of naked-heel cockfight. Naked -heelfighting takes place to a greater or lesser extent all over the country, but the areas shown have proved to be where most of it is going on.
This map shows the approximate main areas of activity of those cockfighters who fight their birds fitted with artificial spurs. As with naked heel fighting, it takes place all over the country but these areas appear to be the most active.
The accurate assessment of the incidence of cockfighting is difficult enough, but the assessment of the incidence of quail fighting is doubly so because it is almost entirely the preserve of the Asian immigrant community. Where it does take place, participants are to be found in substantial groups in confined areas. Many of these people also fight gamecocks.


To Chapter 9