Norfolk farm company wrongly penalised after gamekeeper poisoned wild birds of prey

Gamekeeper Allen Lambert arriving at King's Lynn Magistrates. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Gamekeeper Allen Lambert arriving at King's Lynn Magistrates. Picture: Matthew Usher. - Credit: Matthew Usher

A farm company was wrongly penalised after a gamekeeper poisoned wild birds of prey to preserve game birds for shooting, the High Court has ruled.

Nina Winter. Picture: NFU

Nina Winter. Picture: NFU - Credit: Archant

Allen Lambert poisoned 10 buzzards and a sparrowhawk which he saw as a threat to 2,500 pheasants and partridges laid down for a 10-day “family shoot”.

The gamekeeper on the 4,200-acre Stody Estate in north Norfolk was convicted of an offence under the Wildlife Conservation Act 1981 in October 2014.

And, in January last year, then Environment Secretary, Andrea Leadsom, stripped Stody Estate Ltd of 55pc of its farm subsidy for that year.

Overturning the penalty on Tuesday, March 6, a senior judge noted that there had been “no finding of fault” against the company, based in Melton Constable, near Holt, or its senior management.

The mere fact of Mr Lambert’s conviction did not prove that poisoning the birds was “directly attributable” to his employer, said Mrs Justice May.

“Some further enquiry directed at the level of fault, if any, on the part of Stody Estate in connection with Mr Lambert’s actions was required,” she added.

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“In the absence of any finding of fault there was no proper basis for the imposition of a penalty.”

The Stody Estate, which has 15 employees, has been farmed by the MacNicol family for 75 years and Charles MacNicol is its managing director.

Mr Lambert had been a gamekeeper since 1990, living in a tied cottage.

The Rural Payments Agency, which administers the single farm payment subsidy scheme, at first said the company should lose 75pc of its subsidy.

That was reduced to 20pc by the Independent Agricultural Appeals Panel, but the penalty was upped again, to 55pc, by Ms Leadsom last year.

The issue was of such importance to the farming industry that the National Farmers Union (NFU) intervened in the case

Speaking after the ruling, its chief legal adviser Nina Winter said: “The decision makes it clear that farmers are not automatically liable for the acts of their employees, or indeed other third parties, when those employees breach the cross compliance rules. If the farmer has done nothing wrong, no penalty should be applied.”

NFU President Minette Batters added: “This represents a fantastic victory for the farmer and for the NFU. We always firmly believed that the RPA (Rural Payments Agency) had got the law wrong on this occasion and that’s why we decided to intervene in the legal proceedings.

“A lot of hard work went into this case which was supported by the NFU’s Legal Assistance Scheme (LAS). This highlights once again the strength of the NFU and its LAS standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our members on a point of principle. Every single NFU member matters to us and it’s what makes the NFU stronger. It’s also why the NFU is the most successful representation body within the farming industry.”

NFU legal board chairman Trevor Foss added: “This type of case is exactly the reason why the LAS was established 30 years ago.”

The Stody Estate did not wish to comment.