Police in plea to catch catapult attackers targeting animals following Sky News investigation

Police want the public's help to stop attacks on wild animals after a Sky News investigation revealed children were filming themselves using catapults to kill and torture.

Warning: This story contains images and descriptions readers may find distressing.

Video and photos of the kills are being shared on UK-wide WhatsApp groups.

In some, animals are shown dying slowly after being shot, while in others children kick and abuse the animals after shooting them and pose with their bodies.

Sky News discovered nearly 500 members across 11 catapult groups on WhatsApp, in which more than 350 photos and videos had been shared.

Essex Police is now urging people to tackle "a disturbing crime trend which sees wild animals cruelly targeted for fun".

Wildlife crime officer PC Jed Raven said there had been a rise in catapult attacks using ball bearings or bits of shot.

"It's not just catapults, people sometimes target wildlife with air weapons and crossbows," he said.

"But any way you look at it, it's dangerous and it is cruel. And animal cruelty can be a precursor to more serious crimes."

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PC Raven asked the public to help them catch perpetrators and said those who think it's "harmless fun" are mistaken as the animals can have a slow and painful death.

"Anyone who walks in or patrols our parks and towns are our eyes and ears. We need you to tell us what you know," he said.

"We identified this trend because people were reporting incidents to us and the RSPCA. If you don't tell us, we can't act."

People can report concerns to their local force online, or call 999 if they think a crime is in progress.

The RSPCA described the online material as "horrendous" and said it was an "emerging trend". Geoff Edmond, its lead wildlife officer, said children were "deliberately and intentionally targeting" animals "for sport".

The Swan Sanctuary also told Sky News it had seen an "exponential" rise in birds with catapult injuries.

Volunteer Danni Rogers said the "devastating" wounds are mostly to heads and necks as a result of "pure kill shots".

X-rays show ball bearings lodged in the birds, as well as shattered bones from the impact of catapult shots.

The animals being attacked also include pigs, deer, pigeons, foxes, squirrels, pheasants, rabbits, geese and ducks.

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Catapults are readily available to buy online, including on websites like eBay and Amazon. In the online groups, young people also trade, sell and even make them by hand - while some even promote knives.

WhatsApp said the material being shared in the catapult groups was against its terms of use.

A WhatsApp spokesperson told Sky News: "We respond to law enforcement requests based on applicable law and policy."