Thursday, 27 April 2023

Farmer jailed for damage to River Lugg

There has been a lot of misinformation circulating about the case of the farmer, John Price, who has been sentenced to a year in prison for destroying a section of the River Lugg in Herefordshire.

Due to the high public interest, I thought it might be helpful to share the Judge’s Sentencing Remarks – it’s a 10 page PDF.

This is how the Judge summarised the farmer’s actions:

He has turned a traditional, tree lined, meandering river, full of wildlife, into a canal void of most life. It is nothing short of ecological vandalism on an industrial scale.

The BBC published an excellent summary of the case, highlighting Price’s many previous misdemeanours and offences. Price even ignored a stop notice by Natural England when carrying out this damage. The Judge said:

He seems to adopt the attitude that the rules do not apply to him.

When someone from the Wye and Usk Foundation saw the damage Price was doing and photographed and videoed it from a public footpath, Price pursued them for nearly 12 miles, driving aggressively, flashing lights and shouting for them to get out of their car. The Judge notes that Price had a “history of hostility” towards officials. This behaviour is relevant because the Judge said:

A significant aggravating factor in this case is Mr Price’s repeated aggressive and uncooperative attitude towards officials.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this case has sparked a debate about river ecology and flooding. There are farmers, like the YouTuber Olly Harrison, who insist that rivers are like gutters which need to be cleaned out. Over 10,000 people have signed a petition saying that Price “did the most amazing job clearing the banks and dredging the bottom of the River Lugg”. They believe Price was reducing the risk of flooding to local homes and acting in the public interest. On this, the Judge was crystal-clear that Price’s actions will have had the opposite effect:

In fact, Mr Price’s actions have made matters worse. The channel is deeper, wider and straighter which increases flow rate and volume as it approaches the road bridge which still provides a choke point for the water. The riverbanks have been denuded by the removal of trees and vegetation. It seems to me, that the praise of Mr Price’s remodelling of the river by some local residents arises out of a total ignorance of the true impact of his actions to nature and the environment.

There is clearly a need (and an opportunity) for public education here. Perhaps other farmers, the Environment Agency, Natural England and environmental organisations like the Rivers Trust and the Wildlife Trusts could put out content explaining why what Price has done will worsen the risk of flooding. By ripping up mature trees which would have acted as a buffer, Price has increased the amount of soil and silt that will now wash into the river.

The Judge wanted this sentence to mark the seriousness of damage to a Site of Special Scientific Interest and serve as a deterrent to others. Whilst some think a 1 year sentence is harsh, it’s worth considering that last week a Just Stop Oil protestor received a 3 year prison sentence for seeking to protect the natural world.