PROTESTERS who dug tunnels under an open cast mine to disrupt work have been cleared of aggravated trespass after a judge found they were trying to prevent a ‘wildlife crime’.

The eight demonstrators who hid in underground tunnels and tied themselves to trees and concrete-filled bins at Banks’ Bradley open cast mine in Pont Valley, near Consett, were cleared after a judge ruled they were doing it to prevent a wildlife crime – the alleged destruction of a Great Crested Newt habitat.

Just two days before High Court enforcement officers forcibly cleared them off the site and arrested them, protesters had found one of the rare newts in a trap they had set.

District Judge Helen Cousins, sitting at Teesside Magistrates Court, said it may have seemed to Banks that the finding of the protected species by the demonstrators on April 17 was "too convenient".

But she added: “It seems to be that a finding at that time is not unexpected. The season starts in April and the cold weather delayed that.

"The finding came two days before High Court enforcement officers cleared the site. I found that the protesters didn’t know when they would be cleared off the site and thought there was going to be a reasonable delay.

“Banks felt that the finding at the time was too convenient. The assumption was that the finding of the great crested newt was a fiction, so extraordinary to be untrue. What should have been done at that stage – to ensure that the clearance was lawful – would be to investigate.

“I therefore find that I couldn’t be satisfied that Banks would not have committed or be about to commit an offence contrary to the Habitat and Species Regulations. I find the offences not proved.”

Tobias Munnion, Luca Lecoutteux, Eleanor Ransom, Sophie Pearce, Jessica Sankey, Sarah Johnson, Sam Fawcett and Ruth Hayward were all cleared of trespassing on the Banks site in April.

Ms Pearce was given a conditional discharge, and ordered to pay £200 costs and a £20 victim surcharge, for the charge of resisting arrest.

All eight defendants were given restraining orders on acquittal, preventing them from going within 300 metres of a Banks site or office for 12 months.

Mark Dowdall, environment and community director at The Banks Group, said: “We are surprised and disappointed with the verdicts that have been handed down.

“We would like to thank Durham Police for their professionalism in the way that they dealt with these protests.

“The UK still requires coal to meet a range of essential industrial, household and electricity generation needs, and it is undoubtedly in the national interest to continue to invest in skilled mining jobs in North East England instead of increasing our already substantial reliance on coal imports from overseas mines in Russia and the US.

“Banks Mining has been investing in North East England for more than four decades, with hundreds of local and regional jobs being directly and indirectly created and sustained as a result, and we are continuing to progress work at our Bradley site in the safest, most efficient and most environmentally responsible way possible.”

June Davison, who live 300 metres from the boundary of the opencast site, between Dipton and Leadgate, said: “Justice has prevailed to an extent. We are delighted that the defendants were acquitted and it was recognised that the actions of the campaign and the defendants, in trying to protect the habitat of the great crested newts in the Pont Valley, was justified.

“The case has been supported by local people throughout the three-and-a-half days of the trial.

“The judge accepted that a great crested newt was found on this site and Banks should have undertaken further work. What happened was not in accordance with criminal standards. The defence was accepted.

“As a local person I am delighted that judge understood our reasons for opposing the development in the Pont Valley, but so heartbroken that they are continuing to rip up the valley.

“It is horrendous. It is a huge dusty hole that is unrecognisable. Other local people who have not been as involved as me are no realising the extent of the development because they can see it with their own eyes. It is barren wasteland and they have only extracted a small amount of coal so far. They have not reached the depths they are going to.”