1 September 2000

Green site view appeal

FARMERS are being asked to carefully examine the details of land proposed to be designated as Special Areas of Conservation to check the site is of real importance.

Deputy prime minister John Prescott revealed last week that the government would like to designate 81 new sites covering around 300,000ha (750,000 acres). The new sites, which include bogs, river estuaries and woodland, will double the amount of land under the scheme in England.

Andrew Clarke, NFU forestry and countryside advisor, said farmers with potentially redesignated land should take professional advice. How much of a burden the scheme becomes depends how the law is implemented, he said. "They [the new sites] dont have to be a problem so long as English Nature takes a sensible and practical approach."

The news that the government is making steps to improve wildlife protection was generally welcomed by environmentalists.

Chairman of English Nature Baroness Young of Scone said it was "great news for our important wildlife sites" which would help secure the future of some of Europes natural heritage.

However, Friends of the Earth urged the government to give the new sites teeth by getting the Countryside Bill on the statute book. FoE wildlife campaigner Craig Bennett said: "The new designations will offer only paper protection unless the Government makes absolutely sure that its Countryside Bill becomes law this autumn."

A DEBT collector who helped recover millions of £s from cash-strapped Cumbrian farmers was known as "The Rottweiler, a tribunal was told.

Finance expert David Dixon, 56, had the nickname while working for the Cumbrian auction mart company Harrison & Hetherington. At one stage, farmers owed the firm £11m, the tribunal heard.

Mr Dixon claims he was unfairly dismissed in June last year. But H&H claims his job became redundant after the company reorganised its finance department.

Ian Graham, a former account manager for H&H, said Mr Dixon visited the most debt-ridden farmers. Despite the national farming crisis, he was "professional and "remarkably successful, helping reduce debts owed to H&H from £9m to £4m over three years.

In 1998, however, the company faced an annual loss of £800,000. Mr Dixon said: "There was a board of directors who hadnt got a clue what was going on. The company at that time had debts owed to it of something like £11m. They were gentlemen farmers, not accountants.

In the same year, managing director David Thomlinson accused Mr Dixon of using methods which were at times "too aggressive. Mr Dixon added: "We had a terrific row at the end and I wrote a letter saying that if I couldnt get the debts in as I saw fit, then I should not have been there."

Mr Thomlinson said Mr Dixon was initially employed as an agent in 1996 because the company wished to distance itself from debt collection. "He was my Rottweiler, he said.

H&H eventually gave Mr Dixon a £1600 a month retainer and accepts that he became a company employee. In October 1998, Mr Thomlinson was sacked and given a £211,000 golden handshake after the board accused him of being "indifferent to debt recovery. He now works as a sales consultant for H&H.

Trevor Hebdon, H&H chief executive, said he found the firms finance department was operating inefficiently when he arrived at the company in January 1999. The department was restructured and all long-standing debts handed over to outside solicitors. It was this decision which rendered Mr Dixons role redundant.

Mr Hebdon said: "In the last nine months, we have not repossessed any stock from any farmers. The number of difficult debts and accounts which are out of terms has reduced significantly over the last 12 months. There are no more than 25 to 30 accounts with our lawyers.

Judgement in the case was reserved.