Welsh landowner facing landmark Proceeds of Crime hearing claims he’s victim of miscarriage of justice
A landowner facing the first Proceeds of Crime hearing in the UK arising out of an illegal tree felling conviction claims he is the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
Jeff Lane, a retired motor engineer, was convicted at Swansea Magistrates Court in March 2022 of cutting down more than eight hectares of woodland within the Gower Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty near Swansea. The conviction was later upheld at Swansea Crown Court.
But Mr Lane claims that Natural Resources Wales (NRW) disregarded the contents of a specialist report that said many of the trees were infected with a pathogen called phytophthora that destroys trees and their commercial value.
He has evidence that initially he was served with a notice relating not to his property, but to a farm in Ceredigion. And he disputes other assertions made by NRW in court as facts.
Mr Lane said: “I bought the plot of land as an agricultural holding in 2017, and registered it as such. It wasn’t advertised as woodland. My intention was always to allow my daughter to use it for a livery business alongside pony trekking and alpaca walking.
“In order to access an agricultural building in the middle of the site, it was necessary to cut back tree and plant growth that had overgrown a track which had been constructed 20 years before. It soon became apparent that most of the trees were infected and rotten. The contractor I hired to clear the site applied for a tree felling licence, which was granted. We did not cut down more healthy trees than the licence allowed.”
Mr Lane said that NRW received a tip-off that he had been illegally felling trees and decided to prosecute him, ignoring the fact that the trees were infected with phytophthora .
“There was very little evidence produced against me when the case went to court – and that’s because it didn’t exist,” he said. “In my view I wouldn’t have been prosecuted if the case had been considered by the Crown Prosecution Service, as happens in most criminal cases. But NRW has prosecution rights of its own and they can decide to go ahead with a case without running it past the CPS. Courts then tend to believe them. In this respect my case is similar to that of the sub-postmasters who were wrongly prosecuted by the Post Office.”
Having been convicted, Mr Lane is now facing a Proceeds of Crime hearing. A document served on him says he is facing a claim of £78,614.60. He said: “What is happening to me is so unfair. It’s a complete nightmare.”
A spokeswoman for NRW said the body had nothing to add to what it said when Mr Lane was convicted, apart from confirming that a Proceeds of Crime hearing is scheduled for February 2023.
At the time Mr Lane’s conviction was upheld at Swansea Crown Court, Nick Fackrell, senior officer in forest regulation and tree plant health for NRW, said: “This conviction and its associated sentence proves that non-compliance is not an advisable route for landowners who decide not to comply with felling licences and to fell their trees illegally.
“This is one of the worst cases of illegal tree felling that NRW has investigated in over 30 years. We carried out a thorough investigation and the evidence was strong that illegal felling activity had taken place.
“The loss of this native and wet woodland is devastating and it will take many generations for new trees to grow to replace them, if they grow at all.
“NRW and the professional forestry sector work incredibly hard to ensure that tree felling takes place in compliance with the Forestry Act and the woodlands that they manage adhere to the UK Forestry Standard.
“Felling licences are part of the system we have in place so we can manage our trees and woodlands effectively, protecting them and making sure they continue to benefit us all now and into the future.”
An NRW spokesperson added: “Investigations carried out by officers from NRW revealed that a total of 8.5 hectares (equivalent of 12 football pitches) of native and wet woodland located to the north of Ilston had been cut down without the appropriate licence.
“Native and wet woodland are a priority habitat listed under section 7 of the Environment Act Wales.
“Officers first attended the site in 2019, following a report of illegal felling, where Mr Lane was found to have exceeded the limitations of his thinning licence and clear felled 2.9 hectares of trees. A warning notice was issued to restore the site and Mr Lane was advised not to carry out any further felling.
“In September 2020 officers received aerial photos taken by the Gower Society and undertook investigations which established that a further 457m³ of woodland (the equivalent to more than 20 lorry loads of timber) had been felled. The trees were felled using tree shears for the production of biomass. Many were uprooted and damaged to an extent where they are unlikely to regenerate, with officers noting it was one of the worst offences of illegal felling they had seen for 30 years.
“NRW is now seeking to obtain a Proceed of Crime Act (POCA) confiscation order which seeks to obtain the financial benefit that the defendant has gained from his criminal conduct. This was the first time POCA has been used in forestry in the UK.”
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