A 76-year-old farmer has been handed a 16-week suspended prison sentence for illegally grazing a herd of over fifty cattle on a protected site.
David Rillie, Brandis Corner, Devon, recently appeared before sentencing at Taunton Magistrates’ Court in connection with two offences brought by Natural England, to which he pleaded guilty to.
One, the court heard, related to his occupier obligations under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, and the other was a breach of a stop notice.
The judge sentenced him to a 16-week stint in prison, suspended for 12 months, and ordered him to pay all of Natural England’s prosecution costs, which amounted to £73,927.81.
The court heard how Natural England, which as its website states, is the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England, was made aware of unpermitted winter grazing on the Whiteleigh Meadows Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in December 2020.
An SSSI is defined as a nationally protected piece of land that safeguards our most important areas of natural heritage, and these habitats provide a home for many of England’s rarest plants and animals.
More than fifty cattle, which he owned, had “overgrazed the vulnerable vegetation to such an extent that they had then broken down the neighbouring farmer’s fencing to get to food”, the court heard.
Despite Natural England’s request for Rillie to remove the cattle at this “sensitive” time of year, grazing continued.
Natural England issued a stop notice in February 2021, which prevented further grazing until such time as the farmer engaged with the body and sought consent to graze only with fewer stock during the drier summer months.
The court heard that he ignored the stop notice, and grazing continued throughout 2021 and then again towards the end of summer 2022.
Also unpermitted, he had provided supplementary feed to the herd. On one site visit, Natural England staff observed approximately 80 empty plastic silage wraps “littering” the site.
Whiteleigh Meadows was notified as an SSSI in 1987 for its rare Culm grassland habitat. Culm grassland, the court heard, is wet rushy pasture found only in the southwest of England, mostly in Devon.
At the time of notification, marsh fritillary butterflies, adder and curlew bred on the site.
Previous agri-environment schemes on the land had paid for ecologically sensitive management, but there has been no scheme since 2018.
The unpermitted winter grazing by cattle caused “severe localised trampling” of the habitat, which has left the SSSI in an “unfavourable” condition and which will take up to two years to recover, the court heard.
Drawing the case to a close, the judge stressed the “deliberate and flagrant disregard” Rillie had to his SSSI obligations.
This was despite requests from Natural England to “engage and comply”, as well as the “financial motives behind the offending”.
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