‘A crime against the environment’: Police investigating ‘devastating’ destruction of protected river

Local wildlife experts demand prosecutions for those responsible

Tim Wyatt
Friday 04 December 2020 10:27 GMT
The bank along the River Lugg has been stripped bare and ploughed into bare mud
The bank along the River Lugg has been stripped bare and ploughed into bare mud (Herefordshire Wildlife Trust)
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An investigation has been launched after a legally-protected riverbank in Herefordshire was bulldozed into bare earth despite it being a haven for wildlife.  

Every tree and piece of vegetation along a stretch of about 1.5km along the River Lugg in Herefordshire was stripped out at some point last week leaving a scene of “devastation”, the Herefordshire Wildlife Trust (HWT) reported.  

“The bankside trees are all grubbed out and burnt, the river gravels have been scraped away and the beautiful meanders of the river have been straightened and reprofiled,” lamented Helen Stace, the chief executive of the HWT. “This is a crime against the environment.”

The River Lugg has been designated both as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation because it is such an important habitat for rare wildlife including otters, kingfishers, salmon, crayfish and dragonflies.  

This means they have legal protection and landowners must ask for permission from conservation bodies to undertake any operation likely to damage them.  

The Environment Agency, Natural England and the Forestry Commission have launched an investigation, in collaboration with West Mercia Police, into the damage to the Lugg.  

Dave Throup, area environment manager for the Environment Agency, said: “We are aware of reports of damage to the River Lugg, which due to its environmental importance is protected through Site of Special Scientific Interest status.  

“We are treating this very seriously along with Natural England and the Forestry Commission who have taken immediate action in an attempt to prevent any further works at the site. We are unable to comment further at this stage.”

A spokeswoman for West Mercia Police confirmed someone had reported the Lugg damage to them on Tuesday.

“The Environment Agency are leading on this and we will work with them as they look into the concerns raised,” she said.  

As well as ripping out a precious wildlife habitat, the denuding of the river would also make it significantly more vulnerable to flooding, the HWT warned.  

Heavy rains will erode the banks and wash soil and other pollutants such as phosphates and pesticides into the waters, crippling the river for miles downstream.  

Ms Stace said the HWT was “fairly certain” who had carried out the bulldozing but would not name them to avoid compromising any future legal action.

“We’re expecting the statutory agencies to pursue this with vigour and we’re hoping for a prosecution,” she told BBC Radio 4.  

“If you’ve gone there last week you would have seen a classic Wind in the Willows scene of a winding, tree-lined river bank, there were otters on that section, there’s a lot of kingfishers, trout and salmon spawning in the river. All that is completely gone.”

The denuded banks will mean more flooding, erosion and pollutants being washed into the legally-protected river (Herefordshire Wildlife Trust)

Conservation groups said this would be a “test case” for the government’s claims to develop a “world-leading” environmental protection scheme as the UK leaves the EU.  

“The government has so far failed to live up to this standard, with poor resourcing leaving Natural England unable to properly monitor and protect our most important wild places - Sites of Special Scientific Interest,” said Craig Bennett, the chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts.  

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