The tract of ancient woodland that could be felled for a Center Parcs

It is late November, and Worth Forest is suspended in a liminal moment between autumn and winter. Balding oaks, birches and beech trees huddle like grandfathers, honeycomb leaves crunch underfoot and a hare scurries across my path. Out of sight, hedgehogs and dormice construct their homes for the winter. It might sound like the setting for a storybook, but it is anything but. Worth Forest is a war-zone.

Center Parcs is planning to build a £350 million holiday resort in the West Sussex site, a project which conservationists say will “tear the heart” out of the ancient woodland. 

The holiday company, which already has five family-friendly parks across the UK, hopes to build up to 900 lodges, erect a “subtropical swimming paradise”, and build roads and car parks at Oldhouse Warren in Worth Forest, not far from Crawley. Gatwick Airport is a 10-minute drive away, and the M23 roars just a few hundred metres away, but in the depths of the forest you wouldn’t know it.

“The forest creates a natural sound buffer from the motorway,” says Michael Brown, member of the Sussex branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), as we take a stroll along a public right of way.

The path is marshy on this brisk November morning, and as we hopscotch over puddles we do not encounter another soul. We are not able to enter Oldhouse Warren itself, which is privately owned by the Cowdray Estate and fenced off, but within it lies an ecosystem that has existed here for centuries.

And this is why the Woodland Trust, along with the Sussex Wildlife Trust, CPRE Sussex, the RSPB and Sussex Ornithological Society, is protesting so vehemently against the proposal. Though some of the native deciduous trees in the forest have been felled for younger, fast-growing conifers, this is still a tract of ancient woodland, meaning it has had trees growing on it for at least 400 years (possibly a lot longer), the length of time it takes for the full ecology of a woodland to develop. 

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