£10,000+ legal bill over hedgehog deaths

Tens of thousands of pounds of public money have been spent on prosecuting a Norfolk council - over the death of two hedgehogs three years ago.

Tens of thousands of pounds of public money have been spent on prosecuting a Norfolk council after the death of two hedgehogs.

Defra has pursued the case against Yarmouth Borough Council for three years even though the RSPCA, Health and Safety Executive and police all dropped it.

And last night, the case was destined to cost taxpayers even more when it was listed for trial after another hearing at the town's magistrates' court yesterday.

The council said the case had cost it £10,000 in legal fees so far - and expected the cost to rise to more than £20,000.

Defra was unable to say how much it had spent on legal fees in bringing the case this far.

And the figure does not take into account the cost of a trial at a magistrates' court at up to £550 an hour.

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Town leaders last night branded it a scandalous waste of taxpayers' money, with one saying Defra was using a "sledgehammer to crack a nut".

The hedgehogs died after eating poison put down by a council worker at Hemsby in 2004 after a 97-year-old woman's house was overrun with rats.

Defra defended its decision, saying the poison was in a public place and could have been eaten by a cat, dog or even a child.

A district judge was asked to decide yesterday whether the trial of Robert Whiley, of Tyrolean Square, Yarmouth, a council pest controller for more than 30 years, should go ahead.

He stands accused of failing to take all reasonable precautions when putting down the poison. The council is also being prosecuted for not training Whiley properly in the use of dangerous pesticides.

Judge Philip Browning disagreed with council lawyer Colm Lions that the three-year lapse meant there could not be a fair trial and said he would hear the case.

Last night head of legal services at the council, Chris Skinner, said it should never have got this far.

He said the council did not think it had done anything wrong and pest controllers had had to act swiftly as the rats posed a health risk to Ellen King whose house was infested.

"The lady was old and clearly frail. There was a very serious infestation of rats," he said.

"Her health was a risk so we wanted to deal with it as quickly as possible.

"We would have hoped more consideration would have been given to the fact that the council was trying to do a job under difficult circumstances. We said to Defra, 'Look if we are doing anything wrong, tell us because we would like to provide a good service,' but they have never got back to us."

He said it was a big surprise when a letter arrived to say the council was being prosecuted.

Barry Coleman, Conservative leader of the council, said: "It is a ridiculous waste of money."

Labour leader Trevor Wainwright said: "Nobody wants to see animals poisoned but this could have been dealt with another way. The council could have been given a serious reprimand."

Mr Lions told the court it was not in the public interest to bring the case. "The message will go out that a local authority should not attempt pest control of this kind because of fear of prosecution by Defra," he said.

"Only in the most serious cases would a prosecution follow, and this was not a most serious case."

But Tom Payne, prosecuting forf Defra, said: "The message Defra sends out is that if councils are going to deal with rat poisons they have to do it safely.

"This is not a prosecution for killing hedgehogs. The poison was in places where it could have been reached by cats, dogs or children.

"This is vicious poison being put down in a scandalously reckless manner near one of the most highly protected areas of British coast line. Part of dealing with this poison is informing local residents."

He admitted the investigation had been "clumsy" but said: "That is one of those things that happens when different boards have different responsibilities.

"The RSPCA was first on the ground. They had primary responsibility for deciding whether to prosecute. They did consider it and rejected it because only a couple of animals had been killed. The Health and Safety Executive also rejected it because there had been no human casualties. The police also considered prosecuting but the wildlife officer was on long term sick leave at the time.

"So it fell to Defra to pursue the case," he said.

The trial has been set for July 9-12 at Yarmouth Magistrates Court.