The second mass trespass in two years to take place in Sussex is going ahead on Saturday - to protect ancient woodland from a Center Parcs development.
This follows on from the Landscapes of Freedom mass trespass demanding access to, and an end to blood sports on Brighton and Hove City Council-owned land which attracted more than 300 people back in July 2021. This time it will be on the outskirts of south London, right next to Crawley, where the biggest forest woodland in Sussex lies.
Worth and neighbouring St Leonards Forest are roughly the size of 6,500 acres Ashdown Forest, famed for AA Milne’s Pooh Bear. Only Worth Forest is a fiercely, privately-owned, little-known gem of ancient woodland, harbouring many great, veteran oak and beech pollards.
And it’s here at Oldhouse Warren that Center Parcs wants to site a 553-acres holiday town of 900 lodges, a ‘subtropical swimming paradise’, a variety of restaurants, shops and a spa; trailed by CEO, Martin Dalby, as: “really exciting”.
Not so, perhaps, for the local ecology, and in the words of Sussex Planning for Nature Group it “would tear the heart out of [this] irreplaceable ancient woodland”.
According to this coalition of conservation groups - Sussex Wildlife Trust, the Woodland Trust, RSPB, the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) and Sussex Ornithological Society – Oldhouse Warren is home to a number of rare birds including Goshawk, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Firecrest - one of Britain’s tiniest. Its ground nesting birds, like Woodcock and Nightjar, have some of their last Sussex refuges here.
The site is also a habitat rich with nationally rare archaeological and ecological features, including a network of ancient rabbit warrens and mound lands, as well as a neighbouring Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), an ancient ghyll woodland.
“It is for this reason that we are asking Center Parcs to reconsider developing here,” the conservation groups have reiterated in an open letter to Center Parcs.
“Ancient woodland is irreplaceable; it takes centuries, more often millennia, for ancient woodland soils to accumulate and the rich connections between soils, plants, animals, and other organisms to develop and evolve.”
Henri Brocklebank, is the Director of Conservation Policy & Evidence at Sussex Wildlife Trust.
She said: “At this time of [ecological] crisis, it is imperative that places that are recognised through national policy as irreplaceable, such as ancient woodlands, are protected and restored, not dug up to make lodges and concrete swimming pools, let alone all the associated infrastructure, such as new road junctions and utilities that will be required.
"Allowing Center Parcs to create a new site here goes against all the relevant local policies and plans, not least the UK Government’s own commitment to protect 30 percent of UK land by 2030.”
Crawley Conservative MP Henry Smith is strongly against the development, describing its ‘significant impact’ on the area.
When plans were first revealed last year, he said: “I’ve only seen the general Center Parcs’ proposal for Oldhouse Warren, the woods are in Mid Sussex District Council’s area and the constituency MP is Jeremy Quin, nevertheless it would have a significant impact on Crawley.
“This is a sensitive habitat and I believe this is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest so the local authority will likely not grant permission.”
Oldhouse Warren has one of the largest clusters of ancient trees in Worth and St Leonard’s Forests, and those forests have more than anywhere else in Sussex.
So far Horsham Conservative MP, Jeremy Quin has remained on the fence over the plans stating that the development would bring 1,500 employees and investment, but being an extremely sensitive site it would require “focus on whether the location was appropriate”.
The leaders of both Mid Sussex District Council, the Tory-controlled planning authority, and Crawley’s Labour-controlled District Council have early on expressed their support for the project...citing the local economy and a shift away from the Gatwick jobs monopoly.
Dave Bangs, leading Sussex botanist and author of, The Land of the Brighton Line (containing instructive chapters on Worth Forest) told the Ecologist: “This forest should be open and free to us all and a haven for nature, like Epping Forest and the New Forest.
“Countryside which should be ours to enjoy for free will be lost, whilst much visitors’ cash will flow into the owners’ coffers.”
He went on to explain how the landowners are members of the Pearson family, descendants of the first Viscount Cowdray.
The 6,000 acres plus Paddockhurst Estate was split equally among its remaining seven trustees on Jan 1 2018. Each trustee got an 800 acres plus tranche, plus house. There was a five year moratorium on sales and development.
In terms of timescale this would fit in with the current plans which are slated to be in front of Mid Sussex District Council by 2023.
Center Parcs has already bought an option on Oldhouse Warren for £400,000 plus, although it doesn't currently own the site. There is however eco-survey work visibly going on in the area pre a likely Scoping Assessment.
This would have to take in the plethora of flora and fauna that Bangs lists as: “Glow Worms still shine on midsummer nights on the Warren’s open ground. Golden Ringed Dragonflies – the biggest in Britain – and the rare Brilliant Emerald Damselfly…
“Gorgeous spreads of pink Bog Pimpernel and blue Ivy Leaved Bellflower, purple heathers and yellow Tormentil and Marsh Buttercup, Spearwort, survive along the forest rides from the ancient vegetation of the medieval forest. Even the rare native Lily of the Valley – different from our garden variety – survives there.
“The tiny springtime candles of Bog Beacon fungi glow against the black of little swamps and bogs, like the flickering ‘will ‘o the wisp’ that led travellers astray across the moors. Fierce-looking Green Tiger Beetles, iridescent Dumble Dor beetles, and Sabre Wasps as big as a child’s hand survive there. All are harmless. All are beautiful.”
Jan Goodey is an environmental journalist who contributes regularly to the Resurgence & The Ecologist.