THE husband and wife team running a Benfleet animal sanctuary for 13 years have agreed to close it to avoid prosecution over animal cruelty allegations.

Veronica Mepham, 70, and husband Reinhard, 64, have begun rehoming animals and dismantling the Rescuers Animal Sanctuary they’ve run in Watlington Road, Benfleet, since 1997.

The couple were due to appear at Southend Magistrates’ Court yesterday to face 18 counts each of animal cruelty charges.

But it has emerged those charges are to be withdrawn if the couple sign a legal agreement to shut Rescuers down, which is expected to happen before a court date next month.

The charges related to not giving adequate veterinary treatment to a variety of injured animals and failing to put down four birds.

Other offences included keeping a fox and fox cub in unsuitable conditions, failing to stop a duck from suffering preventable injury, and failing to give a wood pigeon adequate food and veterinary care.

Mrs Mepham told the Echo she had agreed to close the sanctuary, but said this did not mean she or her husband were guilty.

She said: “We deny the allegations and would have fought them in court, but we could not get legal aid. We do not have the money for the case because it has all gone into the sanctuary.

“Our volunteers have supported us and would not have worked here if they had not been happy with the conditions.”

She said most of the animals had gone, including goats to a sanctuary in east Sussex.

Horses and ponies are waiting to be moved, as are some cockatiels.

She added: “It is heartbreaking to do after caring for animals for so many years, but we have to return it to scrubland.”

The sanctuary provided owls for use in the Harry Potter films, while squirrels from the sanctuary also featured in the remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, starring Johnny Depp.

In the Potter films, the owls bridged the gap between the magical world and the world of the Muggels, or humans.

Yogi, a European eagle owl, appeared in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and reportedly had to be banned from the film set because he made the star, Daniel Radcliffe, laugh too much.

The Mephams live in a mobile home at the sanctuary and are likely to have to go on Castle Point Council’s housing waiting list once the sanctuary is closed.

A council spokeswoman said: “When the site, which is green belt land, is vacated the council will conduct a full review of its future use.“”

The RSPCA, which has brought the case against the Mephams, said it was unable to comment.