Reader’s Letter: Why Downlands Farm should be saved from development

Ecologist Martyn Stenning with his book The Blue Tit which he wrote following a study carried out in Lake Wood next to Downlands Farm.

Downlands Farm, along with other shrinking locations, provides essential environmental services for the 15,000 or so residents of Uckfield, and the world at large.

Every breath we take, meal we eat, and waste we produce, is processed by our natural environment and we should all be concerned about it because our built environment, and the human populations they contain cannot exist without it.

So says ecologist Martyn Stenning who, over the last 33 years, has compiled a 20-page species list for Lake Wood, and its vicinity during a programme of scientific research conducted for the University of Sussex and the Woodland Trust.

Read what Martyn says in a letter to Uckfield News:

Balance

In order to balance the views of Mr Chris Lawson (Uckfield News, September 29, 2020) I would like to make some comments about Downlands Farm (here after just Downlands) as one of the “environmentalists” that he refers to.

Chris Lawson has done an important job of preserving some of the old buildings in the preservation area of Uckfield North and likely many other good works. 

However, I am unaware that Mr Lawson has credentials for indicating that the building of hundreds of houses at Downlands will not have a measurable negative impact on local, hence global, biodiversity. 

Essential

Downlands, along with other shrinking locations, currently provides essential environmental services for the 15,000 or so residents of Uckfield and the world at large. 

Every breath we take, meal we eat, and waste we produce, is processed by our natural environment. 

Sir David Attenborough’s recent messages could not be more timely.  We should all be concerned about our natural environment as our built environment, and the human populations they contain, cannot exist without it. 

1,000 houses

Uckfield and Wealden have recently permitted the building of more than 1,000 houses to the south of Uckfield which I have declined to object to because the environmental impact is unlikely outweigh the need for a growing human population to have homes.  However, the situation at Downlands is just the opposite.

Downlands – and adjacent land – has been demonstrated scientifically to be a site of exceptionally high biodiversity and to be of significant, even international interest to the scientific community, and any change of use is certain to have a profound impact on the organisms that live there and the general landscape. 

Public inquiry

Moreover, a similar development proposal was forensically examined by a public inquiry about ten years ago concerning proposal WD/2006/2855/MEA and decisively dismissed by the Planning Inspector and Secretary of State. 

Indeed, as an ecologist, I believe that the assertion by Gleeson Homes Ltd at that time that the development would have no significant environmental impact was clearly misleading and any well conducted, honest, new analysis would surely evidence that again, as little has changed since then.

Species list

I have compiled a 20-page species list for Lake Wood and its vicinity over the last 33 years during a programme of scientific research conducted for the University of Sussex and the Woodland Trust. 

Most observations were of species from the land known as Lake Wood Site of Nature Conservation Interest (SNCI) which is contiguous with Downlands that will, because of its proximity, also be used by most of these species, and possibly additional ones, due to the size and diversity of habitats contained within Downlands, notably the ancient woodland, primeval ghyll valleys, and wetlands, but also the organically farmed hay meadows and historic Budletts Common.  

Researchers

Lake Wood SNCI is owned by the Woodland Trust and managed as a nature reserve and used by researchers, including myself, from the University of Sussex. 

Among the outcomes of this research are a book on blue tits, several degree theses, and published research papers in the international scientific press, using data on birds, insects, and trees, resident at Lake Wood, some of which have implications for the understanding of the consequences of climate change.  

Analysed

Another scientist from the University of Sussex, Professor Trevor Beebee, then President of the British Herpetological Society and now Trustee of Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, analysed data collected from Downlands by ecological contractors employed by Gleeson Homes prior to the previous planning proposal WD/2006/2855/MEA. 

Professor Beebee concluded that the data from the site indicated that the site was “astonishingly good” for reptiles and amphibians and fitted the national criteria to be a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on herpetological (reptile and amphibian) grounds alone.

Negative

Furthermore, the Sussex Wildlife Trust, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and the Woodland Trust also concluded that building on Downlands would have unjustifiable negative ecological consequences.

Historically, Downlands consists of many hectares of Sussex lower Cretaceous sand-rock Sussex downland, from where the South Downs National Park can be clearly seen. 

Streatfeild family

Downlands and Lake Wood, which is typical of the High Weald and up to 60 metres above sea level, was acquired by the Streatfeild family in about 1780 and preserved within their estate until the latter decades of the 20th Century when it was sold to the late Mr C. Preston who has campaigned posthumously, via his will, for for development there through a contract with his trustees. 

Since then constituent fields have been farmed organically for grass fodder and the two ghyll valleys have had minimal disturbance. 

Rare and primeval

These ghylls are rare and primeval features formed by erosion during the last ice age over 10,000 years ago. 

The same is true for the ghyll within Lake Wood where the sand-rock can be clearly seen. 

These valleys drain into a stream that is an EU designated salmonid refuge, and any contamination of water entering those streams during or after any construction on the site would undoubtedly have an impact on the migratory trout and the large community of other organisms that live there.

Main concern

My main concern is that an unbridled increase in human disturbance on the ancient woodlands, ghylls and meadows of Downlands or adjacent protected habitats such as Lake Wood, Budletts and Paygate Wood is likely to have a huge impact on the environments and the species they contain. 

This was demonstrated this summer when Lake Wood was recommended, and publicised, by a misleading publication to be good for wild swimming where no such permission exists. 

Species

Scores of visitors flocked to the wood with the consequence that disturbance meant that species such as kingfishers, grey wagtails, spotted flycatchers and turtle doves, previously recorded there, failed to appear. 

Thankfully, the WT have responded with new signs and greater vigilance to prevent this recurring. 

However, if there were to be an additional population from up to 550 households, and predatory pets, using this land the impact would render the habitats and species diversity of the whole area (land and water) to be unsustainable in their present form.  

Excellent guardian

Finally, the Wealden District motto INTERIORA RURIS translated means “The interior areas of the countryside”. 

I consider Weald District Council to be an excellent guardian and custodian of its very special countryside which is demonstrated by its just concern about preserving the unique, famous and ancient Ashdown Forest, but also in fighting the Gleeson Homes appeal against the rejection of WD/2006/2855/MEA about ten years ago. 

Special

The zone between Uckfield and the Ashdown Forest is special and punctuated with several SNCIs and of course Buxted Park SSSI and should be preserved as prime English heritage countryside rich in biodiversity and important habitats that drain from Ashdown Forest and the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty into the Rivers Uck and Ouse and out to sea at Newhaven. 

I urge WDC and its officers to continue to take threats to this environment very seriously and soundly reject any further inappropriate proposals such as  WD/2020/6507/SO. 

This is particularly relevant just now with David Attenborough’s current warning that we should not squander the wonderful biodiversity upon which we all depend.

Thank you very much for your time.

Yours sincerely,
Dr Martyn Jonathan Stenning CSci MRSB

Read more about proposals for Downlands Farm in previous Uckfield News stories:

Downlands Farm homes plan: battle lines drawn

Petition aims to stop development at Downlands Farm

Proposals for 550 new homes in Uckfield

New Uckfield housing: Here’s the ‘hit list’

See also:

Uckfield shopping tips for October

Uckfield Line: new electrification hope

Uckfield council objects to plans for Solar Electric Forecourt

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How to advertise on UckfieldNews.com

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