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A farmer who bulldozed a riverside beauty spot in a bid to protect local homes from flooding is to be hauled before a court charged with causing damage to the river.
John Price used a digger to dredge a section of the River Lugg near Leominster in Herefordshire and stripped a mile-long stretch of the bank of trees and bushes.
The 67-year-old claimed he had acted in December 2020 to protect locals in the nearby hamlet whose homes had been devastated by floods in previous years.
But the landowner will now face criminal charges, 15 months on after Natural England and the Environment Agency revealed they had launched joint legal action.
Mr Price will appear before Kidderminster Magistrates Court on May 18 to face a string of charges, including causing ‘significant and long-term ecological harm’.
Natural England officials said the river had been ‘decimated’ by the work which had led to a ‘devastating’ effect on local wildlife and people living nearby.
Hereford farmer John Price is facing a string of criminal charges brought by government agencies after he bulldozed a riverside beauty spot to protect local homes from flooding
BEFORE: An image issued by the Environment Agency of what the riverbank looked like in 2018
AFTER: Price is accused of breaking the law when he removed trees from the banks of the River Lugg
The riverbank on the Lugg which has been cleared, Kingsland, Shropshire, December 4, 2020
What do charges John Price is facing relate to?
According to the Environment Agency and Natural England, the charges John Price is facing relate to:
- Unconsented operations and causing damage to a Site of Special Scientific Interest
- Carrying out activities within 8 metres of the River Lugg which were likely to cause damage to or endanger the stability of the river
- Causing a water discharge activity, namely a discharge of silt into the River Lugg
- Failing to take reasonable precaution to prevent agricultural pollution from land management and cultivation practices on agricultural land
- Wilfully disturbing spawn or spawning fish, or any bed, bank or shallow on which any spawn or spawning fish may be
- Breach of a stop notice
They said the habitats of ‘iconic wildlife’ such as otters, kingfishers and salmon had also been destroyed along the 1.5 kilometre stretch of the river.
Mr Price is also accused of carrying out unauthorised activities such as removing silt and gravels from the river bed and illegally felling trees.
He owns land along each side of the river, which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) meaning permissions is needed before work can take place.
The Environment Agency and Natural England say the charges have been brought after a ‘serious and complex investigation which has taken a considerable length of time to complete’.
Oliver Harmar, Chief Operating Officer at Natural England said: ‘The decimation of this section of the River Lugg has been devastating to the local environment and to local people, destroying the habitats of iconic wildlife such as otters, kingfisher and salmon.
‘It was heart-breaking to see this beautiful riverside illegally damaged.’
Helen Stace, CEO of the Herefordshire Wildlife Trust, described Mr Price’s actions previously as a ‘crime against the environment’.
Environmentalists – including BBC Gardeners’ World host Monty Don – also expressed his shock at the ‘complete obliteration’ of the site.
Mr Don said: ‘It breaks my heart but is all too-typical of the ignorance, arrogance and sheer wanton destruction of those privileged to care for our countryside.’
Mr Price claims he acted on the request of residents in the nearby hamlet after severe flooding
But Mr Price had said he was asked to carry out the work for free as he was fixing the erosion of the river bed and was helping to solve flooding issues.
He claimed the work he did on the riverbanks is legal and says he has the backing of local councillors and residents.
Homes were flooded during Storm Dennis in early 2020, but when Storm Christoph hit in January 2021, houses stayed dry.
At the time, Keith Jones, area director for the Forestry Commission, said: I’m appalled at what has happened.
‘Trees are a precious natural resource, which is why anyone wishing to fell them must ensure they comply with the Forestry Commission’s felling licence requirements.’
However, the Forestry Commission has confirmed it was taking ‘no further action’ against Mr Price after they launched their own investigation.
Pictured: what the River Lugg, Herefordshire, looked like in December 2020 after Price’s work
John says he has always looked after the river (pictured) and knows it better than anyone else
After news broke on Wednesday about the charges, Herefordshire Wildlife Trust tweeted: ‘We reported on this incident in 2020. Good to see concerns being taken seriously with legal action.’
Speaking after he cleared the riverbank, Mr Price said: ‘I’m a Herefordshire farmer and have lived at Hay Farm and was born here at home.
‘I have never moved and have watched this river all my life and no one knows this river better than myself.
‘I have always looked after the river. I was asked to stop the erosion because I’m the landowner so I’m responsible for the river.
‘It was up to the Environmental Agency to look after these rivers but they don’t do any work and haven’t got any money to do the work because they spend it all on clipboards.
‘I have not pushed any trees out and I haven’t knocked any trees down I have only cleared what ones came down in the flood.’
Mr Price’s work prompted a multi-agency response in December 2020 after it was discovered
West Mercia Police, Environment Agency and Natural England workers on the scene in 2020
Councillor Sebastian Bowen, Herefordshire Council, even said the situation had improved as a result of the work.
In January last year, he said: ‘The bridge has more capacity now and those houses have not been flooded.
‘The reality is it is much improved. People have been quite impressed with what has been done.
‘People have stopped and said it was a good job that has been done.’
The Environment Agency said it was charging Mr Price with several offences including damaging the stability of the banks, failing to take reasonable precautions to prevent agricultural pollution, discharging silt into the river and wilfully disturbing spawn or spawning fish.
Charges being brought by Natural England include, dumping materials, modifying the watercourse and natural features, using vehicles to disturb species of interest, destroying flora and fauna, river habitats and fish populations.
The charges – which also include breaching a stop notice – relate to December 2020 and to further activity allegedly carried out in December 2021.