The ploughing of downland on the outskirts of Lewes has been condemned as a “grievous” loss to the landscape and wildlife.
Local resident Stephen Watson said the action had saddened and angered many who love the area.
But the farmer concerned has defended his actions and said he was perfectly within his rights.
Mr Watson said: “For many years the fields beyond Landport Bottom had been used for grazing, and had developed a rich chalk grassland sward full of wildflowers – thyme, marjoram, orchids and many other species.
“Skylarks nested there, and blue butterflies abounded. These fields formed part of an unbroken sweep of downland turf from Blackcap to Lewes, offering some of the finest walking and cycling on the South Downs.
“Spectacular all round panoramic views could be had from the paths across the fields along the ridge towards Offham.”
But all that changed last month, he said, when farmer Justin Harmer ploughed up the chalk grassland.
“The loss to wildlife and to the landscape is grievous,” said Mr Watson. “The great sweep of chalk grassland to the north-west of Lewes has been broken; instead of treading springy downland turf with the sea on one side, the Weald on the other and skylarks singing overhead, you must now negotiate muddy and slippery barbed-wire fringed paths around the field edges. Suddenly, this has become a less attractive area for visitors – including, ironically, those who might rent the same farmer’s holiday cottages.”
Mr Harmer, of Mill Laine Farm, Offham, said he had “been through all the hoops” to follow the rules and gain permission.
“This was fully in compliance with East Sussex County Council, English Heritage and Natural England [formerly English Nature],” he said.
The fields would be planted with crops, he added, then rotated with grass.
In 1997, the farmer partially ploughed a nearby Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) before the then Environment Secretary John Gummer intervened by placing a Nature Conservation Order on the site following representations from Friends of the Earth.
An SSSI is a conservation designation denoting a protected area in the United Kingdom.
Elsewhere, Plumpton College has submitted a planning application to create a 0.45 hectare (1.1 acres) lake at the site below the South Downs.
A decision from Lewes District Council’s Planning Applications Committee is due on June 21.