A mixed-farming business from Norfolk has been fined £17,000 after it pleaded guilty to carrying out works on the River Little Ouse at Lodge Farm Estate, without a permit, causing harm to the habitat of water voles.

Water voles are a protected species in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, making it an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb, obstruct or cause damage to their place of shelter or protection.

The company, Paul Rackham Ltd., also agreed to pay £49,000 towards prosecution costs at Norwich Crown Court on March 30.

A remediation scheme valued at £400, 000 has also been carried out by the company. The scheme is to repair the harm caused and to reconnect the River Little Ouse to the floodplain and will most likely result in an overall enhancement to the local environment.

Harming water voles

Between October and December 2018, a 2.4km stretch of river was dredged and deepened with work also carried out to raise and re-profile the riverbank. Vegetation from the river and the bank was also removed.

In January 2019, when a member of the Environment Agency went to take a sample to monitor drought in the area, he noticed that the channel was deeper than usual and had to abandon his sampling because of this.

In February 2019, Environment Agency officers visited the site and found that vegetation and trees had been removed from the site.

The river banks have been scraped back and swans are swimming in the difference. Image: Gov.uk

They later spoke with company director Paul Rackham senior on the phone, telling him to stop the work as it needed a permit. No further work was carried out.

However, further visits to the site found that the work already had a significant adverse impact of the habitats of invertebrates and, water voles.

Officers concluded that the work damaged the water voles' burrows and removed their food and source of shelter.

Furthermore, the River Little Ouse was found to have slowed in flow, leading to different plants and invertebrates. Numbers of freshwater shrimp in the area dropped to their lowest recorded numbers in the past five years.

Sentencing

Sentencing the company, Her Honour Judge Bacon QC found the level of harm caused to be significant. She found that Paul Rackham Ltd. had been reckless in carrying out the work without first obtaining a permit.

The company said it was unaware it needed a permit but it had obtained flood defence consent from the Environment Agency in the past. It had also previously been advised to contact the Environment Agency in advance of doing any dredging.

Commenting on the case, Norfolk flood risk officer, Naomi Daniel said:

"Businesses should ensure they have the correct permits before they carry out work. Anyone that needs assistance with this should contact us for further advice.

"Ensuring you have the correct permits ensures no environmental damage is caused. In this case, the actions of the company caused serious damage to the local ecosystem and endangered water voles which will take time to restore."