A farmer jailed for 12 months after hiring diggers and an 18-ton bulldozer to illegally strip trees and vegetation from riverbanks in Herefordshire has had his prison term reduced on appeal.
John Price, 68, was originally sentenced to immediate custody and ordered to pay £600,000 prosecution costs by a district judge on April 20, in what Natural England and the Environment Agency said was the worst river-side destruction the organisations had seen.
Legal action was brought by both groups, which claimed the affected area could take several decades to recover, following the unlawful works, including dredging of the river’s bed, carried out during 2020 and 2021.
The Lugg is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), meaning any works need an Environment Agency permit, and must adhere to strict conditions.
Giving his appeal ruling at Worcester Crown Court on Wednesday, Judge Nicholas Cole cut the sentence to 10 months, after hearing of the “practical difficulties” Price, who is autistic, faced in custody as well as other mitigation, including his age.
However, he declined to suspend the sentence, telling Price: “Given the breadth of the offending over an extended period of time … there is a need for deterrence in any sentence we impose.
“The message needs to go out loud and clear these laws are there to protect the environment for everybody”, the judge said.
Detailing the ruling, the judge said: “These are not minor breaches of technical regulations, rather the appellant’s actions strike at the heart of the legislation intended to protect the environment.
“It is clear this traditional meandering river, lined by trees and full of wildlife had been turned into a canal,” he added.
The judge said: “To put it simply this was outrageous behaviour committed over a period of time in a planned manner, involving hiring of machinery and operatives and it was persistent.
“You, Mr Price, turned a beautiful stretch of important river into canalised section devoid of interest, thereby robbing it of important diversity of plants and animals.
“It was vandalism of the environment on a grand scale.
“We do not accept there was any justification of your actions.
“You failed to seek expert advice despite having means to do so and in our judgement acted in a selfish and ignorant manner.”
Price, of Day House Farm, Kingsland, Herefordshire, had claimed he carried out re-modelling of the riverbanks to cut the risk of nearby properties flooding.
Preceding an initial bout of bank clearance and dredging in November 2020, Price, who owns and farms the land, had cleared a copse of 70 mature trees, flouting the SSSI protections, then laid an area of nearby hard-standing.
“There can be no doubt these works had nothing to do with the reduction of flooding,” added the judge.
“They were to create what we understand was an area of hard-standing for horses and it was in blatant disregard for the environment and indeed the law.”
Price was served with a stop notice in December 2020, but 12 months later again used heavy equipment to move gravel off the river bed and banks at a “critical time of year in the life cycle of salmon and brown trout,” the judge said.
The judge said he sentenced “on the basis these were all deliberate offences, given Price breached and flagrantly disregarded the law”.
“It will be many decades before the river returns to the tree-lined meandering river it once was,” he said.
Price “simply didn’t care” about the regulations, the judge added, highlighting aggravating features including an incident where he spotted an official taking photographs of the illegal activity, “early in the morning”, and followed the official in his car.
The judge said Price got in his vehicle, caught up with the official’s car, “and proceeded to follow him, shouting for him to get out and driving aggressively.
“At one stage he was attempting to block the carriageway and pursued him for over 11 miles.”
The judge said he rejected Price’s assertion he believed the official, in a hi-vis jacket, was “photographing his partner and children”, saying “the appellant knew he’d been caught and he was angry about it”.
Judge Cole added that rather than reduce flooding risk, “subsequent investigation by the Environment Agency and Natural England have noted that his actions may, in fact, in due course make matters worse”.
Price, who sat in the dock having been given permission to sit for the duration of the hearing, did not react as he was returned to custody.
Herefordshire Wildlife Trust first raised the alert about damage to the riverbanks in December 2020.
At the time, the trust’s chief executive called the actions a “crime against the environment”.
Price was later charged with offences including failing to stop agricultural pollution from entering the river, removal of trees and vegetation, reprofiling a river bank and going about the works without consent.
At a subsequent court hearing Price admitted using heavy machinery to dredge and reprofile a 1.5km (0.93 mile) stretch of riverbank, at Kingsland, claiming the works were to help prevent flooding of nearby homes.
An order was also imposed on Price requiring him to restore the stretch of protected river, which included the habitats of otters, kingfishers, trout and salmon, he had cleared.
Price, who the court heard had capital assets “in excess of £20 million” and a previous conviction from 2007 for damming a nearby tributary to extract water for his potatoes, also had his three-year disqualification from being a company director upheld by the judge.
Judge Cole had been asked to consider Price’s autistic spectrum diagnosis and reduce his culpability “from deliberate to reckless”, but he ruled “this appellant knew what he was doing as his actions continued over a lengthy period of time”.
Speaking after the sentencing, last month, Emma Johnson, area manager for Natural England said: “The destruction of this section of the River Lugg was devastating for the abundance and range of species which thrived in this river.
“The river is one of the most iconic rivers in the UK and to see this wanton destruction take place was devastating.”
Martin Quine, Environment Agency place manager for Herefordshire, said: “While Mr Price’s justification for the works was to help prevent flooding to local properties, his actions did not have any flood prevention benefit.
“The destruction of river banks is not appropriate flood management.”