Please note that any updates to this situation are provided on another post – please click here to go there.
It’s a well-known fact (or it ought to be) that the River Lambourn is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and a SAC (Special Area of Conservation). There is no higher level of protection that a river can receive. A wide range of land-management operations cannot be conducted in such areas without advance permission from Natural England, which may or may not be granted. Two examples on the the Gov.uk site of the kind of things that require consent are ‘changing the way you manage woodland or changing a grazing regime.’
The recent dredging of about 100m of the River Lambourn on the eastern edge of the village goes a long way beyond these fairly mild interventions. It appears that the first incident took place last week and was reported on the front page of the BBC’s national news site on 29 November. Representatives of the Environment Agency (EA), including members of the Enforcement Team, have visited the site more than once since the incident was reported to them. Nevertheless, on 4 December, further dredging work was done, followed by a further site visit. We understand that the EA has issued a formal notice that all work should cease.
Here is the second dredger in action:
— Timothy Clarke (@timothyclarke55) December 4, 2018
As the video above and photos below show, that stretch of the river now more closely resembles the foundations for something on the scale of the Berlin Wall than the bed of a protected chalk stream.
It’s not certain who was responsible nor to what extent they were aware of the regulations. It’s possible that a tenant, particularly a recent one, wouldn’t know about the SSSI status (although mentioning the plans to anyone who knew the area well would have resulted the suggestion that advice be sought). A landowner would be more likely to be aware. It’s certainly surprising that any reputable contractor would carry out such intrusive work without being assured all necessary permissions were in place.
However, regardless of what might or might not have been known before the work started, no one could have been in any doubt of the situation after the first visit from the EA; but the dredging was repeated a few days later.
Nor is it clear what the purpose of the dredging was. No one Penny Post has spoken to can suggest a reason. No useful environmental or land-management purpose has been fulfilled – indeed, quite the reverse.
Representatives from Action for the River Kennet visited the site as observers and were in no doubt as to the damage that has been done. “The dredging at East Garston has been incredibly destructive,” ARK Director Charlotte Hitchmough confirmed. “Even when they have no water in them winterbournes are still full of plants and invertebrates as well as water voles. Vegetation has been removed from the banks leaving them exposed to erosion and the whole gravel bed has been removed. When the water returns, the damage will impact not just that reach but also further downstream, with the loose soil washing down the river and clogging up the gravel river bed as fish are trying to spawn. It’s important that the damage is rectified as quickly as possible, and with consent from the Environment Agency.”
Penny Post contacted the EA and a spokesman provided us with the following statement:
“We are investigating unconsented dredging to the River Lambourn at East Garston in Berkshire. Approximately 80m of the Special Site of Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation appears to have been dredged and may have caused environmental damage which could affect native species wildlife. Our officers attended the site yesterday and will now determine if offences have been committed, and what remedial actions are required. If an offence has been committed we will take appropriate action. If any member of the public has any concerns, they should please report environmental incidents to our 24-hour hotline on 0800 807060.”
A spokesman from Natural England has also confirmed that a representative has visited the site and that Natural England “is working closely with the EA regarding the investigation and discussing with them what the appropriate action and timescale should be.”
If an offence has been committed and if this is determined to be a knowing breach of the Wildlife and Countryside Act the consequences could be very serious indeed. The EA’s Director of Legal Services has confirmed (though not specifically in relation to this case) that “when companies damage the environment whether it is through polluting our waters or breaching permit conditions, the EA will take enforcement action against them including civil sanctions.”
One option, which is an alternative to a formal prosecution, is an Enforcement Undertaking. This needs to be proposed by the offending organisation rather than by the EA and will require the company to complete actions which will address the cause and the effect of their offending, to admit liability, to undertake improvements to avoid future offences and to make a payment to one or more appropriate environmental charities. Recent Enforcement Undertakings have resulted of payments of between £5,000 and £975,000.
If you own or lease property which is or might be protected by an SSSI, an SAC or any similar restriction then you’re strongly advised to check before any work is carried out. This can include comparatively minor works carried out by homeowners. This page on Gov.uk provides a good deal of information and onward links and this on on Natural England’s site will let you search to see what areas are protected in this way. See also the above comment from the EA which includes a phone number. There are also a number of reputable and specialist land-management companies, including Broadmead Estate Services in Hungerford, which would be able to provide advice on any projects that were being considered.
The two photographs below showing the state of the river after the first dredging were kindly supplied by Action for the River Kennet. The photograph at the top of the post showing the second dredging was kindly supplied by Timothy Clarke.