A fieldsports company and its director have been fined £40,000 and ordered to pay £125,000 in costs after admitting damaging a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in the North York Moors National Park.
The prosecution, brought by Natural England (NE) against York Sport Limited and director Michael Wood, centred on activities linked to pheasant shooting in Farndale, a SSSI renowned for its wild daffodils.
The charges included constructing a car park, bridges and feeding devices on the site, using vehicles, and changing the game management by attracting pheasants to the SSSI, all without the necessary permission from NE.
NE?s regulation director, Janette Ward, said: ?We appreciate that shooting makes an important contribution to the economy and landscape of rural areas and we are keen to work with sporting estates to support their efforts.?
?In this case, however, the sheer number of pheasants released was unsustainable and so damaging that a prosecution had to be brought. We hope the company will now work with us to manage this special woodland appropriately in the future.?
At two court hearings in 2010, York Sport Limited and Michael Wood had admitted seven offences each between 2006 and 2009.
The company and director had entered guilty pleas in respect of the various charges on the basis that no significant harm or damage was caused to the SSSI at Farndale by the admitted offences.
NE disagreed, and alleged that the acts of the company and Michael Wood had caused the SSSI significant harm.
After hearing evidence from expert witnesses at York Crown Court last week, including Hugo Straker, advisor from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, Judge Stephen Ashurst found that the company and Mr Wood had significantly increased the number of pheasants reared for shooting.
The judge also found that the decision to do so was made for commercial interests and in full knowledge of the unlawfulness of such an action.
?LITTLE LONG-TERM HARM?
However, though the judge concluded that some damage was caused by the defendants, he felt that the impact of the damage relating to six charges concerning the erection of physical structures on land within the SSSI, was very localised and that ?very little if any long-term harm had resulted?.
He concluded that the witnesses called by NE were too dismissive of other factors which could have caused the SSSI damage, and that the change in game management was not the principal cause of eroded banks and loss of vegetation.
NE had said that pheasants had caused extensive damage to woodland ground flora, including wild daffodils, over an area of 20 hectares, because they scratched and pecked at plants.
Bridges and feeders have now been removed from the site, but NE says that the pheasants remain and maintains its view that the SSSI shows little sign of recovery.
Speaking after the case, Mr Wood said: ?I feel that for both NE and my company there are important lessons to be learnt from these court proceedings, which have taken nearly 18 months to conclude. NE has now made available one of its in house ecologists who is authorised to liaise with our environmental consultant to devise a management plan for the Farndale SSSI.?
?This will enable our gameshoot to continue to operate in conjunction with farmers at Farndale and assist NE in achieving its conservation and environmental goals in respect of the Farndale SSSI and the whole of the Farndale Valley.?
Tim Russell, BASC?s director of conservation, said: ?BASC condemns the actions on this shoot which have led to the damage of a SSSI.?
?All shoots have a responsibility to understand the importance of protected sites and to work with conservation agencies to ensure shooting is compatible with such sites. People need to be aware of the rules and they need to make sure they abide by them.?
This is not the first time that NE has succeeded in a highprofile prosecution against a fi eldsports company for damaging a SSSI.
In 2008, Wemmergill estate in Teesside, owned by entrepreneur Michael Cannon, was fined £50,000 after being found guilty of laying a half-mile trackway on protected moorland.
The estate was ordered to pay costs of £237,500 and do £220,000 of restoration work to return the moor to its former condition.