A US firm has been accused of carrying out the wilful destruction of a ‘priority habitat’ and haven for wildlife in Dartmouth after spraying it with weedkiller.

The plot, located north of Seymour Drive, is the subject of a long-running dispute that began when the previous owner levelled what used to be a densely wooded area in 2018 with the aim of building 28 homes and a play park.

Obtaining planning permission was however conditional on including an area of open grassland that would be accessible to the public.

The remaining scrubland is reportedly an important habitat for endangered species, such as the slow worm and the cirl bunting, a bird so rare that it is confined to a small strip along the South Devon coast.

However, there are claims the fenced-off field has been routinely sprayed with weedkiller, much to the disgust of residents living nearby.

US investment firm Roark Investments LLC bought the plot of land for only £3,700 in May 2020, but nothing else appears to have changed on the ground.

Last month, the South Hams Society raised the alert after the land was sprayed again, saying it was “devastating to both biodiversity and the health and wellbeing of local residents”.

Photos of the fenced-off field reveal a large patch of dead vegetation and a bare area of land overlooking the Estuary.

The field as it looked in May before it was sprayed
The field as it looked in May before it was sprayed... (South Hams Society)

...and after it was sprayed (photo taken earlier this month)
...and after it was sprayed (photo taken earlier this month) (Richard Torne)

Dartmouth councillor Jonathan Hawkins asked SHDC to test the soil for toxicity levels, but the request was turned down by the council’s enforcement department on the grounds that it does not have the powers to go on-site.

Cllr Hawkins said: “We don’t know what the spray is, but there’s no wildlife on it anymore. When Seymour Drive was put in place, the whole idea of that end of the development was to create a natural barrier with trees, vegetation and wildlife.”

Cllr Hawkins has in the meantime asked SHDC to consider slapping a compulsory purchase order with the aim of handing it back to the community.

The leader of SHDC, Julian Brazil, agreed that the land should be rewilded. “It was designated as open space and nothing has changed from that. It went to appeal and they lost it - any application will go through due process,” he said.

SHDC for Dartmouth, Ged Yardy, said he found it “disconcerting and strange that they continue to undertake these activities”.

He said he supported the local residents in their opposition to the developer’s “relentless pursuit of the degradation of the land to facilitate some future deal”, adding that the developer was “playing the system” and “abusing” their position.

“SHDC have investigated how to prevent the degradation of the land and I have to trust in the officers and their interpretation of the legal tools that they have that they are doing as much as they can,” he said.

However, South Hams Society has accused SHDC of failing to enforce the rules.

Speaking for the association, Richard Howell said he believed the land was being deliberately sprayed to make it suitable only for development, a claim rejected by Cllr Brazil.

“They continue to spray it because they’re trying to make it useless for any other purpose but development,” Mr Howell said.

We have contacted Roark Investments LLC for comment.