A prominent Herefordshire farmer has found himself at the centre of a media storm for carrying out maintenance work on the River Lugg.
For the past month, John Price has been working on and off along a mile-long stretch of the riverbank to repair erosion in the village of Kingsland, after the Environment Agency (EA) told him in August to do so.
Following separate discussions between Kingsland Parish Council and EA officers, the agency also wrote to parishioners stating that the north-side bank upstream of Lugg Green bridge “could do with some reprofiling due to bank slumping”.
This would help ease water flow, as the third arch of the bridge was obstructed. The EA said it would “look to the landowner to carry out these works”.
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Mr Price said his local EA officer then rang him in October to ask for permission to take diggers onto his land to unblock the third arch, which had been silted up for 40-50 years and which locals blame for the Lugg bursting its banks and flooding half a dozen homes during Storm Dennis in February.
As Mr Price had already started the riverbank protection work, he told the EA officer he had the machinery to clear the arch. He said he was asked if he would do the job for free – and he accepted.
Soon, realising it was a big job, the farmer hired a 16t bulldozer, paid for out of his own pocket, to push the soil out from under the arch. He also used his own 360deg digger to lift the soil out and level it across his field.
Mr Price removed the build-up of soil upstream, as well as under the third arch, to get the water flowing through it again.
But he was dumbfounded when the EA served a legal notice on him on 27 November ordering him to stop the work along the Lugg, a day after it and Natural England had been “alerted” to the works by a member of the public.
The EA has since insisted that the works undertaken would require a permit under the Environmental Permitting Regulations – and no permit had been issued.
Ironically, Mr Price finds himself halfway through the erosion works and still in breach of his responsibilities as the riparian landowner.
If nothing else, this case highlights the disconnect between the EA, Natural England, the Forestry Commission, Wildlife Trusts and farmers
He has the support of the parish council, the county council chairman and many locals, especially those whose homes were recently flooded. They say if the work had not been done, the river would not be flowing as freely as it is now.
Other farmers have also shown great support on social media, recognising that years of neglect by the EA have left many rivers and ditches silted up and more prone to flooding.
However, green groups have accused Mr Price of committing environmental crimes – pointing to the fact the River Lugg is in a site of special scientific interest and home to various rare and precious species. They are demanding the toughest of penalties.
If nothing else, this case highlights the disconnect between the EA, Natural England, the Forestry Commission, Wildlife Trusts and farmers.
These bodies need a better working relationship with the farmers who are responsible for maintaining these watercourses, especially if the government’s future Environmental Land Management scheme is to succeed.
But the overriding message to landowners is to be careful. Even if you think you have jumped through all the hoops, there may still be others left to negotiate.