The Woodland Trust, Countryside charity CPRE, Sussex Wildlife Trust, the RSPB and Sussex Ornithological Society have raised concerns over the company’s plans for Worth Forest, Crawley, revealed earlier this year. Read more: Everything you need to know about Center Parcs’ Sussex plans.
The groups have argued that the development of the ancient woodland would ‘tear the heart out of irreplaceable ancient woodland’ and called for a ‘more sustainable’ site to be found.
Center Parcs said it had more than 30 years’ experience of sensitively managing woodlands and detailed ecological surveys would inform its designs.
The proposed development site is known as Oldhouse Warren, described by the five groups as a ‘very special part of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’.
Dan Osborn, chairman, CPRE Sussex (the Sussex countryside charity), said: “Center Parcs could not have picked on a more environmentally sensitive and precious place than Oldhouse Warren for their proposed new complex.
“It is utterly unsustainable there. Felling ancient woodland and displacing some of our rarest birds would be bad enough anywhere, it is even worse done in the heart of the High Weald National Landscape.
“The proposals fly in the face of everything we are told about the need to reduce our carbon emissions, and run counter to government objectives for the restoration and expansion of our natural habitats and biodiversity for our, and their, long-term health and wellbeing.”
Although the proposed Center Parcs site is not open to the public, the groups said it is known from survey work that it is a breeding and foraging site for numerous bird species, many of which are scarce.
These include goshawk, marsh tit and firecrest, with further surveys likely to reveal other red-listed birds, they said.
It is also a medieval hunting forest with known historical and archaeological features, such as pillow mounds – artificial rabbit warrens – and pond bays associated with the iron industry.
Yianni Andrews, RSPB area manager for Sussex, said: “The proposed site at Oldhouse Warren is home to rare and threatened birds, alongside irreplaceable ancient woodland habitat.
“It is critical that these special places are safeguarded for now and the future.”
Alan Perry, president of Sussex Ornithological Society, added: “This site is ancient woodland and within an AONB, which means that under planning law it is supposed to be protected.
“It holds scarce and threatened birds and survey work in this private site would doubtless reveal other such species. But the site also needs to be looked at in a wider context.
“It is part of a wider, largely undisturbed, area of woodland and open fields that is home to scarce breeding birds that roam over large distances. Such extensive areas are extremely scarce in the South of England, which makes it all the more important that this site and the wider area around it remains protected from major development.”
Henri Brocklebank, director of conservation policy at Sussex Wildlife Trust, said nature was ‘undeniably in crisis’ and sites such as Oldhouse Warren should be protected.
“Allowing Center Parcs to create a new site here goes against all the relevant local policies and plans, not least the Government’s own commitment to protect 30% of UK land by 2030,” she said.
“Center Parcs needs to find an alternative location that won’t destroy and degrade ancient habitats.”
Jenny Scholfield, South East regional director of the Woodland Trust, said the kind of development planned by Center Parcs was ‘non-negotiable’ in such a location.
In response to the concerns, a Center Parcs spokesman said: “As part of the pre-planning process, we are conducting detailed ecological surveys which will inform our designs and construction environmental management plan – at the moment, we haven’t completed this work so we don’t have anything more specific to share, but rest assured that we take our responsibility to the environment and forests extremely seriously.
“We have more than 30 years’ experience of sensitively managing the woodlands in which our villages are located, carefully nurturing and maintaining the forests to protect and enhance biodiversity.
“Our approach to this development will be a collaborative one, working with the local authority, local community and with all groups that have a specific interest in the site.”