A DEVON farmer has received a suspended prison sentence and was ordered to pay costs of almost £74,000, for illegally grazing cattle on a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

David Rillie, aged 76, of Brandis Corner, near Holsworthy, appeared for sentencing at Taunton Magistrates’ Court after pleading guilty to two offences at a hearing brought by Natural England in November 2022.

One related to his occupier obligations under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, the other a breach of a Stop Notice.

He was sentenced to 16 weeks in prison, suspended for 12 months, and ordered to pay all of Natural England’s prosecution costs of £73,927.81.

The court heard how Natural England was made aware of unpermitted winter grazing on the Whiteleigh Meadows Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in December 2020.

Fifty-plus cattle, owned by Mr Rillie, had overgrazed the vulnerable vegetation to such an extent that they had then broken down the neighbouring farmer’s fencing to get to food.

Despite requests from Natural England for Mr Rillie to remove the cattle at this sensitive time of year, the grazing continued.

Natural England served a Stop Notice in February 2021. The Notice prevented further grazing until such time as Mr Rillie engaged with Natural England and sought consent to graze only with fewer stock during the drier summer months.

He ignored the Stop Notice and grazing continued throughout 2021 and then again towards the end of summer 2022.

Also unpermitted, Mr Rillie had provided supplementary feed to the cattle. On one site visit, Natural England staff observed approximately 80 empty plastic silage wraps littering the site.

Whiteleigh Meadows was notified as a SSSI in 1987 for its rare Culm grassland habitat. Culm grassland is wet rushy pasture, found only in the southwest of England, mostly in Devon.

At the time of notification, marsh fritillary butterflies, adder and curlew bred on the site. Previous agri-environment schemes on the land had paid for ecologically sensitive management; but there has been no scheme since 2018.

The unpermitted winter grazing by cattle caused severe localised trampling of the habitat which has left the SSSI in an Unfavourable Condition and which will take up to two years to recover.

In summing up, the judge stressed the deliberate and flagrant disregard Mr Rillie had to his SSSI obligations, despite requests from Natural England to engage and comply, as well as the financial motives behind the offending.

A spokesperson for Natural England said: “Mr Rillie ignored his obligations as a SSSI occupier and failed to take the opportunities to comply provided by Natural England.

“His actions have led to this important and sensitive site suffering damage which will take several years to recover. Natural England takes all damage to SSSI’s seriously and will use its enforcement powers to ensure that anyone who acts in this way will be brought to account.”