Case report: Farmer fined for polluting SSSI

In the week of the 28 October 2019, Northampton Magistrates’ Court fined farmer Mr Andrew Colinswood £1,600, £7,000 in costs and a £160 victim surcharge for polluting a stream in a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The Facts

The Court heard that Andrew Colinswood farmed Salcey Green Farm, Hanslope, which was next to a tributary which fed into the River Great Ouse in Salcey Forest. This was a popular conservation area, visited by 250,000 walkers, cyclists, horse riders and tourists every year. He had been farming since he was 15 and had been at the site for 3 years.

In April of last year, two lagoons on Mr Colinswood’s farm filled up with runoff from the farmyard, which included raw cattle waste, and subsequently spilled into connected drainage ditches which flowed into the stream. The Court was told that the farm lagoons had been constructed during the time that Mr Colinswood had managed the site and that the process had damaged existing site drainage. Once the lagoons had filled with a certain level of waste, the damage caused effluent to spill via land drains into drainage ditches and then the stream.

Several reports to the Environment Agency noted that the stream was grey, covered in scummy foam and reeked of sewage. Environment Agency officers conducted samples at the site and found that levels of ammonia were 10 times higher than upstream, which was enough to be extremely toxic to fish, invertebrates and other aquatic life. The officer returned two weeks later to find that the effects of pollution were still ongoing, and that dense outbreaks of fungus and midge larvae indicated the contamination had been ongoing for an extended period.

The impact was so severe that the Forestry Commission erected signs warning the public to keep their dogs out of the water, and a wildlife ranger reported seeing no wildlife in the water since the pollution.

The Decision

Mr Colinswood pleaded guilty to breaching the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2016 by allowing farm waste to discharge into a watercourse. He was ordered to pay a fine of £1,600, £7,000 in costs, and a £160 victim surcharge.

Mr Colinswood admitted that he was aware of the risk caused by the damaged lagoons but thought that he could manage the runoff. He also tried to blame a neighbouring farm for the pollution, although investigations had already established his own farm as the source.

This was the third time in just over 6 months that Mr Colinswood faced enforcement action for polluting the same stream with farm waste. The Environment Agency had given advice and issued a formal warning however his attempts to fix the situation did not remedy the problem.

After the case, Jack Taylor, the investigating officer at the Environment Agency said:

“It’s our job as a regulator to protect people, wildlife and our precious environment, and of course everyone has a responsibility to do their bit.

This farmer was negligently and repeatedly putting a protected forest at risk. Not only are some of the trees here around 600 years old, but the forest provides rare and ancient habitat for a number of precious plants and insects. Despite this, he still ignored advice and a formal warning.

We hope the outcome of this case serves as a warning to those who ignore their environmental responsibilities — we won’t hesitate to take action against them.”

Comment

Managing land in an area in, or close to, a SSSI brings with it several additional risks and responsibilities. SSSIs are designated areas of special interest due to their fauna, flora, geological or physiographical features. Alongside ensuring the usual waste regulations are complied with, certain activities are also prohibited and there are additional legal duties on how the areas should be managed. For instance;

  • It is an offence to intentionally or recklessly damage, disturb or destroy land which is known to be an SSSI or intentionally or recklessly disturb the wildlife in an SSSI. It is also an offence to take down, damage or obstruct an SSSI notice or sign.

  • It is an offence for owners or occupiers of an SSSI to carry out any activity that may likely damage the SSSI without consent from the relevant conservation agency.

  • Owners and occupiers are further required to inform the conservation agency of any change in ownership or occupancy.

Conservation agencies can take three steps to improve the favourable condition of the SSSI. First, a management agreement, where the conservation agency will advise on the work that is needed to protect and improve the condition of the site. If the features of special interest on the SSSI continue to deteriorate from neglect or poor management, the second step is a management scheme. This is a statement of measures necessary to conserve or restore features of the land. Finally, the conservation agency can issue a management notice. Failure to comply with a management notice within 2 months of the conservation agency’s deadline is an offence which can result in prosecution, carrying a penalty of an unlimited fine. Conservation agencies may also enter the land to carry out the work and recover the costs or, as a last resort, obtain a compulsory purchase order.

As such, while waste managers who operate sites close to SSSIs must be mindful of their normal obligations, they should also ensure they are fully aware of the SSSI-specific regulations.