POTATO farmer John Chinn has been fined £6,000 for using so much water to irrigate crops the River Avon dropped by six inches.

An alarmed ferry operator complained to the Environment Agency about dramatically falling water level because he was worried it would get too low for him to operate his boat.

Chinn, 53, of Cobrey Farms, Coleraine Buildings, Coughton, near Ross-on-Wye, admitted two charges of illegal water abstraction and not using a meter to check the amount.

At Gloucester Crown Court he was fined £6,000 and ordered to pay £2,195 in costs.

The court heard Chinn, one of 30 potato producers supplying supermarket giant Tesco, was worried his crop at Mitton Farm, Tewkesbury, would suffer from scab if not watered in late June and early July last year.

Prosecutor Sarah Chapman said he then used more water than the farm's extraction licence permitted to irrigate the crops. Some of the watering was done without a meter being in place even though he knew one was required, she said.

Ms Chapman said the tenant of Mitton Farm, Stewart Pearlman, had been fined £3,000 for one similar water extraction offence when he appeared before Gloucester Magistrates as a co-defendant.

The magistrates dealt with Pearlman but Chinn's case was more serious and they sent him for sentence.

The farm had a licence from the Environment Agency limiting how much could be extracted from the Avon, she said.

On June 24 last year a ferryman called the Agency because he had seen the level fall by 5-6 ins in one weekend, said Ms Pritchard."Any further drop would have put safe navigation in jeopardy."

An agency investigator checking the farm on June 25 found water being taken without a meter.

Pearlman was told and informed Chinn, who had a meter fitted. But when the officer returned on June 29 he found it disconnected and water still being extracted.

Ms Pritchard said on July 1 the officer returned and saw the meter had been re-fitted. Water extraction continued for four day but because of a fault in the pump the amount was not accurately measured by the meter.

David Chidgey, defending, said Chinn was facing a ruined potato crop if he did not irrigate immediately at that time.

It was vital to keep the top 6cm of the soil wet to prevent scab and Chinn did try to get permission for the extraction from the Environment Agency, he said.

Mr Chidgey said Chinn was a highly intelligent and experienced farmer, concerned about the environment. He believed if he extracted straight from the river instead of from a brook - for which he had permission - it would make no difference to the level of the Avon.

Fining Chinn, Recorder Martin Picton told him: "At a time of need for yourself in terms of the crop you were growing and wanted to protect it is quite clear that you adopted, at the very least, a reckless approach to the abstraction of water."