A YEAR ago Herefordshire farmer John Price was jailed for laying waste to a wildlife-rich riverbank.

He claimed he had razed what had been described as an “enchanting tree-lined reach” to alleviate flooding – despite experts saying he had increased rather than lessened the risk.

But in the months since, a view has taken root among some that Mr Price is a local hero whose destruction of a natural habitat has been effective in safeguarding homes.

So why, 12 months on, has this belief still gone unchallenged by officials? Has the silence left Mr Price and his supporters feeling vindicated?

The Hereford Times goes in search of answers.

Riverbank bulldozed

The Herefordshire riverbank stripped bare by a zealous farmer with a bulldozer is still largely devoid of life three-and-a-half years later.

There is now some scrubby vegetation along the stony margins of the river Lugg near Kingsland, but it is a far cry from the wildlife-rich habitat it once was.

One year ago, John Price, now aged 69, was jailed for 12 months for his environmental crimes, though his sentence was later reduced to 10 months on appeal, and he actually served fewer than three months.

A restoration order was also imposed under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 that required him to restore the river.

Experts' warnings

Mr Price, of Kingsland, believed that in straightening and dredging the winding one-mile stretch of the Lugg in November 2020 and again in December 2021 he would save nearby homes from flooding.

But experts have consistently warned that Mr Price’s claim is without foundation.

Helen Stace, former chief executive of conservation charity the Herefordshire Wildlife Trust, said at the time that Price had destroyed a site of special scientific interest – an “enchanting treelined reach” with “immense” value for wildlife.

Later, Andrew Nixon, conservation senior manager of trust, said in December 2020: “Removing all bankside vegetation and scraping out the riverbed and banks will cause a huge increase in the speed the water moves through the river and increases the flood risk downstream.”

The Environment Agency, whose duties include managing the risks from flooding, also insisted after the farmer’s jailing that his actions had done nothing to prevent flooding.

Martin Quine, the agency’s place manager for Herefordshire, said in April 2023: “While Mr Price’s justification for the works was to help prevent flooding to local properties, his actions did not have any flood prevention benefit.”

Referring to the jailing of Mr Price, he said: “The destruction of riverbanks is not appropriate flood management. It is important that the judge recognised that the works significantly weakened flood prevention measures rather than improved them.”

Yet despite the wealth of testimony from experts, the belief has taken root among some that Mr Price is a mistreated local hero who succeeded in preventing flooding where the authorities failed.

Support for Price

Even his local parish council (Kingland) came out in support in 2021, with Councillor Sebastian Bowen saying: “The reality is it [the flooding] is much improved. People have been quite impressed with what has been done. People have stopped and said it was a good job.”

As the anniversary of Mr Price’s jailing approached, the Hereford Times went back to Kingsland to ask villagers for their views now about what had happened at the river.

Simon Powney, a retained firefighter, said: “It appears to have been an improvement. The river has settled down and looks back to normal.

“We’re not getting the flooding problems there that we were. I’ve seen how it does flood there, but in the last lot of rain we didn’t have any problems.

“If the work wasn’t done, we would have had what happened last time with the water going into the houses by the bridge.

“I will say that the general opinion around here is that Johnny [Mr Price] has done a good job.”

Another villager, Maurice Evans, said: “Beforehand, it would have been in the houses. I know what John Price did... but it has helped.

“Since he’s done it these houses have not flooded. But everyone has their own opinions.”

Villager Richard Collishaw said: “There is a lot of difference down at the bottom of the river by the bridge. It looks very tidy now and I’m sure the trees are going to grow back.

“I think it’s stopped the river cottages being flooded. There was a lot of noise about it, but I think he did a good job.”

The battle for hearts and minds has, it seems, been won by Mr Price, despite evidence given in court about the harm he caused, and his actions’ ineffectiveness against flooding.

So why has the Environment Agency and Natural England (which is responsible for the conservation of nature and landscapes) not done more to counter what appears to be ill-informed perceptions about the destruction on the Lugg?

The Hereford Times pushes for answers

We asked on March 12 for any data the organisations have about the impact of Mr Price’s activities on the river.

This was the answer they gave: “Natural England and the Environment Agency have been monitoring compliance with the restoration order since it was served to Mr Price by the courtin April 2023.

“Works that have taken place so far include the removal of a drainage pipe that ran into the riverbank and works to create a 10-metre grass buffer along the length of river affected by the illegal works to help restore valuable habitats.

“Works due to be undertaken in 2024 include installing natural features in the river to create habitat such as gravel beds and support wildlife as well as tree planting. Both agencies will continue to liaise with Mr Price to ensure that works required to restore the site are implemented as agreed.”

But we felt this did not adequately address our question so asked again on March 29, pressing for clarification on whether Mr Price had alleviated flooding, made it worse, moved it to other areas or simply had no impact at all.

We also asked for confirmation that the impact of his activities on the river had been monitored since 2020.

The reply was: “Following a prosecution by Natural England and the Environment Agency, Mr Price was found guilty of destruction of part of the river Lugg and sentenced to 12 months in prison. He was also ordered to pay prosecution costs of £600,000 and ordered to carry out a number of actions to restore the river he damaged.

“Natural England and the Environment Agency welcomed the seriousness with which the court treated the severe and lasting damage to the river Lugg, which destroyed habitats and wildlife on a stretch of one of the country’s most unspoiled rivers.”

Again, the essence of our enquiry went unanswered.

So we went to Herefordshire Wildlife Trust, which also predicted at the time that the scouring of the riverbank would not alleviate flooding.

The organisation declined to comment about “what the Environment Agency may or may not have said or done”.

But a spokesman said: “Herefordshire Wildlife Trust advocates for natural flood management across our landscapes which means allowing, or restoring, rivers or landscapes to function more naturally with the result that the flow of water into rivers is slowed, the flow within rivers is slowed, and the landscape generally holds more water.

“The objective is to limit the amount, and speed, of water within river channels which minimises flooding overall.

“Natural Flood Management techniques include leaky dams, cross-slope hedgerows, riverside woodland and attenuation ponds and scrapes.

“In 2023, the trust began a project in north Herefordshire, funded by the Environment Agency, to work with landowners to put some of these techniques into practice on their farms.

“We are currently working on a project across Herefordshire and Radnorshire in partnership with the Wye Valley National Landscape and Radnorshire Wildlife Trust called Wye Adapt to Climate Change which is funded by the National Lottery Community Fund.

“The project will promote the creation of community climate action networks to support local communities in making positive changes to adapt to the effects of a changing climate.

“Project staff will also work with landowners to explore nature-based solutions to impacts from climate change such as holding water in the landscape to use for irrigation of agricultural land and prevent flooding of housing and businesses.

“As climate change causes wetter winters with more intense and prolonged periods of rainfall, this approach will help communities and landowners manage the effects and create more resilient landscapes.”

Again, the crucial element of our enquiry was not addressed and so it remains unclear either if Mr Price’s activity with his bulldozer has alleviated, worsened or had no effect on flooding.

It is also unknown if there has been any study into the impact of the work.

Consequently, ill-informed speculation on social media and elsewhere is likely to continue to go unchallenged in public by scientific data.