Farmer cops big fine for destroying wetlands

A FARMER has been fined more than $400,000 for bulldozing a wetland near Moree that was a breeding ground for rare birds.

In one of the state’s biggest land-clearing cases, John Hudson was found guilty of clearing 486 hectares on his property, Yarrol Station, in 2006 and 2007. The site, one of a handful of places in NSW where rare species of ibis, herons, ducks and egrets could breed, was flattened by bulldozers linked by chains.

The offence was “self-evidently done for the purpose of making more land available for agriculture”, Justice David Lloyd found in a decision handed down in the Land and Environment Court yesterday.

“The penalty should properly reflect the deliberate nature of the offence, which was committed despite the express instructions given to Mr Hudson that native trees were not to be cleared.

“The clearing was carried out as part of the agricultural activities on the land and in that sense the offence was part of a commercial operation – that is, it was motivated by commercial considerations.”

The offence fell within “the upper range of seriousness”, Justice Lloyd said.

According to the judgment, Hudson’s case was based on the belief that legislation to protect native vegetation was unconstitutional and that, because he and his wife owned the land, “the trees were their trees”.

Hudson had also claimed he had received permission to bulldoze the wetland area from the Catchment Management Authority, but the court decided this was not the case. A local catchment officer had written to Hudson in 2004 forbidding him from clearing “native trees and shrubs of greater than 10 years of age”.

Hudson, who now lives in Queensland, did not attend the court and could not be contacted for comment yesterday. He had argued that he was clearing the land of invasive lippia weed.

The land clearance could have a big impact on breeding, an expert from the University of NSW, Professor Richard Kingsford, said. “What’s critical about this particular area is that the birds went there in their tens of thousands. It was an optimal site. The impact is much greater than just clearing part of the flood plain because we don’t know if these birds are coming back if it floods, and if they do, they won’t have any nesting areas to go back to.”

The wetland was a rookery for straw-necked ibis, night herons, royal spoonbills and various rare duck species, options for which are limited. The Hudson property was part of the Gwydir wetland, one of the largest inland wetlands in NSW, which has declined by 90 per cent in recent decades.

The judgment, with fines totalling $408,000, was a warning to people engaged in land clearing, the NSW Government said.

“It shows that the system has teeth,” a spokesman for the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change, John Dengate, said. “The Government has said it aims to close down broad-scale land clearing, and this case demonstrates that.”

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