By John Burns
FAILING to remove sheep from common grazings when requested by Dartmoor Commoners Council cost two farmers £14,000 plus their own legal costs.
Brothers, and farming partners, Philip and Nicholas Abel of Peter Tavy, Devon, pleaded guilty at Okehampton Magistrates Court this week to grazing sheep on Peter Tavy Common between Nov 7-11, 1996 in breach of a notice issued by Dartmoor Commoners Council (DCC) to clear the land for scab control.
DCC has unique powers under the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985, including the power to issue regulations and prosecute commoners who ignore them.
The brothers were given a conditional discharge for three years and were ordered to contribute £14,000 towards the prosecutions costs, in addition to meeting their own costs.
Stipendiary magistrate Philip Wassall heard that the practice of having a period of "clear days" each year when all sheep were cleared from common grazings went back hundreds of years. Its modern purposes included prevention and control of sheep scab.
The prosecution said the Abel brothers ran some 5000 sheep in five flocks in partnerships with various other family members.
Four of those flocks carried identical ear marks and colour markings.
When DCC proposed the clear days, back in December 1995, Philip Abel wrote objecting to the dates. Then, after the council had confirmed that the clearance would take place between Nov 7-11, the brothers mother telephoned the DCC chairman to say the family would not comply and that Abels law not DCC law would prevail.
On each 1996 clear day, sheep with Abel family markings were seen on Peter Tavy common and DCC three times requested their removal. The last sheep were not removed until Nov 13. DCC resolved unanimously to prosecute, but the Abels refused to say who owned the sheep.
DCC was advised it would be risky to try to prosecute the whole family. But, eventually, through MAFF records, the council identified the brothers as the only members of the partnerships claiming subsidy on Welsh Mountain ewes, the majority breed of the sheep in question.
Mr Wassall said it was clear there were purposes behind the DCC rules and the council had a duty on behalf of all Dartmoor commons graziers to prosecute those who breached them.
Because a substantial part of the prosecutions costs had been incurred establishing the identity of the sheeps owners, it was right that the brothers should make a significant contribution to those, he added.