In a landmark prosecution, a landowner in Somerset has been fined after obstructing and threatening two Natural England officers investigating reports of unconsented activities within the Wet Moor Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) near Langport.
The Landowner, of Tapmoor, Moorlinch, pleaded guilty to obstructing a Natural England officer exercising a power of entry, when he appeared before North Somerset Magistrates' Court in Weston-super-Mare.
He was fined £700 plus a victim's surcharge of £70 and ordered to repay £2,787.50 in prosecution costs, bringing the total to £3,557.50. The defendant has also appeared at Taunton Crown Court where he pleaded guilty to two offences under Section 28 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 relating to conducting damaging activities within the Wet Moor SSSI without Natural England's consent. He will be sentenced for those offences at a later date.
The court heard how Natural England brought the prosecution – the first of its kind in England – following an incident on 27 May 2021, when two officers attended a site in Long Load, South Somerset, to investigate reports the defendant had conducted activities within the SSSI without Natural England's consent, causing damage and disturbance to the site.
The court was told the defendant physically obstructed the two officers from entering the site despite being informed they had a statutory power of entry to the land.
The defendant then became abusive and aggressive, swearing repeatedly at the officers before taking his top off, approaching them with his fists clenched and threatening to fight them, causing the officers to retreat fearing for their personal safety.
In sentencing, the court dismissed the defendant's argument that this was a minor offence, stating he had "intentionally chosen to be verbally and physically intimidating to two individuals just doing their job, which clearly had a lasting psychological impact."
"We always seek to work in partnership with landowners and where we receive reports of damaging activities within SSSIs we have a statutory duty to investigate.
"This sentence serves as a stark reminder that neither Natural England nor the courts will tolerate abuse of any form towards our hard-working staff, and we will take enforcement action where necessary to protect these important sites."
On the 27 May 2021, at La Lade Caravan Park, Long Load, in the county of Somerset, you did intentionally obstruct officers of Natural England and persons acting in exercise of a power of entry conferred by Section 51(1) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, from accessing the site.
Contrary to Section 51(4), Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
Sites of Special Scientific Interest are areas of land and water that are considered to represent the most important areas of our natural heritage and provide a home for many of England's rarest plants and animals. These include nationally and internationally important wetland, species-rich grasslands, ancient woodlands, heathlands and geological formations.
Wet Moor was notified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1985 and forms part of the internationally important Somerset Levels and Moors Special Protection Area and Ramsar Site, designated for its rare and vulnerable bird interest and large populations of waterfowl. Wet Moor supports large numbers of endangered species, including Bewick's swan (Cygnus comubianus bewickii), Dunlin (Calidris alpina alpina) and Pochard (Athya ferina), and its ditch features provide crucial habitat for a range of invertebrate species.
SSSIs are afforded protection from damage, destruction, disturbance and unconcerned activities under Section 28 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Natural England officers have a statutory power of entry to enter any land within a SSSI, without landowner's consent where necessary, to monitor the condition of the land and investigate whether any offences may have been committed on or in connection with that land, pursuant to Section 51(1) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
For more information on Natural England's statutory enforcement responsibilities and how to report an incident to us, please visit the gov.uk website HERE
You can find a list of SSSIs in Somerset HERE