Every year we see hundreds of development proposals that threaten valuable woods and trees. Our Woods Under Threat team has seen it all, from catastrophic roads, sprawling housing developments and unfathomable quarrying proposals to zombie training facilities and nudist camps. This is the story of just one of those cases, as we take an in-depth look at our team’s work to save Lake Wood.


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Our view on new housing

We know the UK faces a housing crisis. Nature and climate are in crisis too, but we don’t have to choose between new development and the natural environment – the two can work in harmony. We often support development teams to make new housing sites sustainable and mitigate impacts to valuable woods and trees.

Late 2020: threat to Uckfield’s wild haven arises

In late 2020, a supporter alerted us to proposals for a large housing development outside Uckfield, Sussex on an area of land known as Downlands Farm.

As the name suggests, the land was used for farming, but the surrounding area is alive and buzzing with wildlife. Several ancient woods border the site: Budlett’s Wood, Paygate Wood, Thirty Acre Wood, Shermanreed Wood, Longwood Gill, Fir Tree Grove and our own Lake Wood. These woods all connect to each other and are incredibly valuable for people and nature. Many hold gills and streams that support rare insects, plants and other wildlife. Lake Wood, so-called for the 3-acre lake at its centre, has dramatic rocky outcrops and historical features etched into every crevice. It's home to the endangered hazel dormouse as well as nuthatch, wild garlic, early purple orchid and more.

The plans for over 400 dwellings would create significant impact, including increased recreational activity, fragmenting ancient woods from each other and nearby habitats, affecting the site’s hydrological nature and causing dust, light and noise pollution.

September 2022: assessing the impact

The proposals reached the planning application stage in June 2022. Our team spent time checking the documents and determining the level of response we might need to make. This takes a few days for each individual case. After completing our assessment of this development in September, it was clear that Lake Wood and the nearby ancient woods faced a grave threat.

We put forward suggestions to mitigate the threats, including a buffer zone between the development and ancient woodland. Natural England and the Forestry Commission recommend a minimum 15m buffer zone, but recognise the need for larger buffers which is what we recommended. Unfortunately, this was where we, other conservation organisations and the local community locked horns with the developers.

April 2023: winning the first battle

With serious objections from local people and concerned charities, Wealden District Council faced a tough decision. Thankfully, the officers at the council had also recognised the impact of the development on ancient woodland – among other concerns – and rejected the application in April 2023.

June 2023: the appeal

Not rebuffed by the council’s concerns, the applicants appealed the decision two months later. The development’s future now ultimately rested in the hands of the Planning Inspectorate, the Government body that deals with planning appeals and applications in England.

November 2023: support at the highest level

With an appeal inquiry imminent, a resistance against the housing proposals was mounted. The council and the applicants would be the main parties battling it out, but the locals also stepped forward valiantly to stand up for their ancient woods.

The council officers stood fast against fierce opposition from the applicants and their consultants during the November appeal hearing. Local campaigners called on experts including the wonderful ecologist and volunteer warden of Lake Wood, Dr Martyn Stenning, and the knowledgeable Dr Alan Thompson, to represent the geological and hydrological interests of the site.

February 2024: the final decision

Ultimately, the Planning Inspector appointed to the case recognised the sensitivity of the ancient woods at Downlands Farm and dismissed the appeal, citing impacts on ancient woodland as a key reason. This was a huge relief for local residents, and for us both as a local landowner and a charity fighting to protect important woods.

Hope for the future

This long-running case had a happy ending, but this isn’t always the case. Not every wood is saved. Not every tree has a community to leap to its defence. But these cases give us hope. They give us hope that communities can succeed in defending their local woods and trees. They give us hope that decision-makers can recognise the value of these irreplaceable habitats. And they give us hope that the planning system can protect the natural environment.

If you’re worried about woods and trees where you live, check out our resources to help you fight for them. You can also keep up to date with our campaigning work via our news page.

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