Ratty's brush with the law

Times Online, November 03, 2006

The word "Kafkaesque" may be over-used, albeit not by any of Kenneth Grahame’s characters, but a tale reaches me from the idyllic Lincolnshire village of Scopwick that makes me wonder whether the authors of The Trial and The Wind in the Willows are connected in a hitherto unsuspected manner. Let us consider the following vignette of village life.

Scopwick is one of those quintessential villages of England’s green and pleasant land, bisected by a narrow beck and charming to behold, some six miles south of Lincoln. With a population of 300, Scopwick’s village hall and meetings therein play a central part in the fabric of life. So, too, does the fate of one of Britain’s smallest mammals, the water vole, a creature beloved of Grahame if not, to anyone’s knowledge, Kafka.

In 1995, concern mounted about the safety of the riverbanks abutting the Scopwick beck. Ducks, normally so picturesque and, if you buy Waitrose’s oriental meal for two, tasty, had been up to no good, nibbling the underside of the banks in search of worms. The ducks were a popular feature of Scopwick, whose residents as well as visitors enjoyed complementing their wormy diet with sundry snacks. However, the beck had widened, becoming shallower than it had ever been previously and compounding the duck-driven instability of the banks. It was feared that one day a visitor or, indeed, a resident might fall into the beck thanks to a collapsing bank.

The Parish Council debated the problem. It was recalled that 100 years earlier a railway company had caused the banks to be shored up to protect the road on either side of the beck, so as to allow safe passage to Scopwick’s then new station for vehicles and people. The method adopted a century ago was to dry stone wall the beck. Given that dry stone walling had worked once, and that it remains a feature of many countryside environments, it was far from illogical to consider its deployment again. However, up popped a voice. "What about the water voles?" said parish councilor Susan Hiles.

Ms Hiles was worried that Scopwick’s water voles would object to their habitat metamorphosing from riverbank to dry stone wall. Her colleagues commissioned various studies of how best to deal with both voles and collapsing banks, with one firm of architects providing a solution that would cost the village £90,000. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this scheme was vetoed. Eventually, in 1998, dry stone walling work was done on a short stretch of the riverbank, as agreed with North Kesteven district council.

Up to this time, the humble water vole had not been deemed worthy of statutory protection, but then came its belated inclusion in Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. This conferred protection on the voles’ places of shelter, though not, curiously, on the voles themselves. By now, the need to shore up further stretches of the river was evident, and for some four to five years dry stone walling of various sections continued, the work being done by volunteers at minimal cost to the village.

All seemed well on the riverbank, until a member of English Nature happened to drive through Scopwick. Like Ms Hiles, he was worried for the voles. It seemed to him that their habitat may have been compromised, and before anyone could say "Toad of Toad Hall!" the matter moved on apace. The chairman of the Parish Council, 73-year-old Peter Baumber, was interviewed under police caution. Then, in December 2005, the Council as a whole was prosecuted in Sleaford Magistrates Court with "intentionally or recklessly obstructing access to a place used by a wild animal [namely, Ratty & Co] for shelter or protection" under the 1981 Act.

Step forward Michael Pace, of law firm Andrew & Co. Mr Pace, acting for the Council, established that the voles, far from being discommoded by the dry stone walls, had chosen to reside in them. Pace pointed out, also, that the site of the voles’ original habitat was undisturbed. A not guilty plea was entered and Mr Pace suggested to the Crown Prosecution Service that the case was a nonsense, bolstering his argument with photographs of the voles happily gazing from their nice new homes.

To no avail. The CPS pressed on, with the case listed for trial this month. However, at a July directions hearing, the CPS served notice of discontinuance because the case was "not in the public interest".

The cost? Pace estimates up to £25,000 has been wasted. As he says: "The case should never have been brought. The legislation was aimed at developers, not Parish Councils. Besides, it was obvious that no offence had been committed."

An order was made that the Parish Council’s costs be paid out of central funds, but that is not, sadly, the end of the matter. The voles’ original stretch of riverbank is untouched, and yet still at risk of collapse. The voles are easy come, easy go, happy to live in dry stone walls or the riverbank. But if the last section of riverbank is dry stone walled, what then? Will Mr Baumber find himself once again being interviewed under police caution, with another prosecution for the Council around the corner?

In nearby Ruskington, voles were caught and placed in cages before being relocated to concrete banks some five miles distant. Do the gentle burghers of Ruskington await a court summons, too? No one knows, but meanwhile Ratty & Co scurry from wall to bank and back again. Some of them, it is rumoured, now know the law — and Kafka — as well as The Wind in the Willows. And rather better, it seems, than anyone at the CPS.