Landowner faces appeal costs

A LANDOWNER faces a substantial bill for costs after Appeal Court judges rejected his legal challenge to the designation of a large swathe of East Anglian countryside as a "protected" wildlife zone.

A LANDOWNER faces a substantial bill for costs after Appeal Court judges rejected his legal challenge to the designation of a large swathe of East Anglian countryside as a "protected" wildlife zone.

The Honourable Patrick Fisher applied for a judicial review of an "unnecessary and irrational" decision by English Nature, the Government's wildlife agency, to designate more than 30,000 acres of arable land in the Brecks - owned by a total of 84 farmers - as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) to help protect the rare stone curlew.

Mr Fisher, of Kilverstone Hall, near Thetford, argued that he and other landowners had been voluntarily helping the RSPB to protect the nesting sites of the bird and had achieved considerable success.

It was unnecessary and irrational, he claimed, for English Nature to impose a SSSI designation on the area, and an infringement of his human rights to enjoy his property.

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However, three Appeal Court judges yesterday ruled that the decision to designate the land was "properly taken and is challenge proof".

Lord Justice Wall said he was "unpersuaded" there was any legal flaw in English Nature's decision.

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"English Nature reasonably formed the opinion that the area of land was of special interest by reason of its internationally important population of stone curlew," he added.

Mr Fisher and his family trust, appealing against a High Court decision last year, were ordered to pay the legal costs of the case and were refused leave to appeal to the House of Lords.

The court heard that the presence in the area of the largest UK population of stone curlews was largely due to farmers' good land management in a co-operative project with the RSPB.

English Nature, which used RSPB data to assess the area's importance, insisted it was its duty to make the designation because the area fulfilled the criteria and was vital to the birds' survival and reproduction.

The agency rejected claims that the SSSI designation would place heavy restrictions on the use of the land.

Dr Andy Clements, English Nature's director for designated sites, said after the judges' ruling: "We are delighted that our scientific opinion has been upheld again following a rigorous legal test. The fact that the Breckland SSSI stands is good news for stone curlews."

The ruling would not affect the agency's commitment to work positively with landowners and land managers, he said.

However, Mr Fisher said the outcome of the case sounded a warning to landowners over involvement in voluntary conservation initiatives.

"Voluntary action by landowners helped to double the stone curlew population and this is the reward they get for it - the imposition of a statutory designation on their land," he said.

Mr Fisher said he had been left "disappointed and sick at heart" by the court's verdict. He would now be asking English Nature to "de-notify" his own land from the SSSI designation because no stone curlews had nested on it during the past three years.

He claimed that the court battle had turned into a "sorry charade" and that he now faced a legal bill of several hundreds of thousands of pounds "for trying to pursue a principle".

A huge bill had been submitted by English Nature's legal team, he claimed.

English Nature said last night that the assessment of costs would be a matter for the court in the event of the two parties failing to agree.

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