THE residents of a tiny village are up in arms at a proposal by the UK’s first caviar farmer.

If plans submitted to Lewes District Council are passed later this autumn, the man who brought caviar production to England will open a new fish farm in East Chiltington, just north of Lewes.

Ken Benning, who launched Exmoor Caviar in 2010 after a career in importing fine foods, wants to build several large two-metre-deep ponds for five-foot-long Siberian sturgeon in a field he has purchased from his parents.

But residents of the hamlet, which has just 260 inhabitants, say it will scar the landscape, disrupt their peaceful community and drain water from sea trout spawning grounds.

Mr Benning now lives with his wife and five children in Battersea but grew up in the area.

He insists that the earthworks needed to create the ponds will last only six weeks and after that time there will be no visible or audible disruption to neighbours.

He said: “From the objection and protests you’d think I was trying to build Hinkley Point here.

He insists the project will be a “beacon” for British farming which will benefit, not disrupt, the ecology of the area.

But since plans were lodged in mid-August the village has sprouted a forest of signs featuring cartoonish fish, with the slogan “Save Our Sea Trout.”

Protestors say that plans to drain 20,000 litres of water per day from natural resources will drain the water table so badly that native sea trout will no longer be able to use the winterbourne, which only runs strongly in the winter months, to spawn.

Mr Benning stresses that water will only be drawn in autumn months before the fish arrive.

Villagers are also concerned that the scale of the earthworks necessary to create the scheme will blight the peace and quiet and that farm traffic, and noise and light pollution, will endure after any construction has been completed.

Mr Benning insists that the farm buildings will be below the line of sight behind hedges, and that the most intrusive construction – an 11m wind turbine – will not be visible and not audible from any of the surrounding properties.

Janet Downes, a leading protestor whose house abuts land intended for the fish farm, said: “All the residents of Chiltington Lane, and many more local people nearby, are concerned about this application.

“We are very lucky to live and work in such a beautiful place. The proposed caviar farm could leave us with a permanent scar on the landscape in return for little or no economic benefit to the area. This is just the wrong place for this enterprise.”

They are backed by Lewes District Councillor Sarah Osborn.

She said: “‘I fully support the local residents in their fight against this blot on the landscape,

“I share their concerns about the impact this development would have on the local environment and the detrimental effect on the quality of life of its immediate neighbours.”

The two sides were set for their first public confrontation at the East Chiltington Parish Council meeting on yesterday evening. Read tomorrow’s Argus for a report of the meeting.


AS YOU drive through East Chiltington, along a single track road past a 200-year-old forge, the only traffic to interrupt your journey is the occasional horse rider out for an afternoon hack through the unspoilt countryside.

Butterflies flit between scattered houses dotted along lanes which follow the course of an ancient winterbourne, a tiny waterway which in colder months carries run-off from the chalk hills of the adjacent South Downs National Park.

So it is easy to see why the 260 residents of one of the smallest parishes in England might be concerned about proposals to build what they describe as a “semi- industrial” fish farm in the midst of their rural idyll.

Harry Haskell, 74, has lived in the village for 37 years and the gates and hedges of his cottage are boasting, like those of most houses in the hamlet, arresting signs proclaiming “Save Our Sea Trout – Say No To Caviar Farm”.

Mr Haskell explained: “My fear is that we’ll lose the natural habitat. This whole area is used by ramblers, bird watchers, horse riders, because it’s a haven for wildlife and this project will have a negative effect.”

He added: “I’m an experienced angler and environmentalist, and I’ve never come across anyone who wanted a fish farm on a hill. No-one in their right mind would attempt it.”

The project – the brainchild of the UK’s only caviar farmer Ken Benning – is certainly bold.

His plans, currently under consideration by Lewes District Council, would turn a modest plot of land at one end of the village into a caviar farm with a wind turbine, a miniature reservoir and five water beds, where at least two of which would be used to rear the sturgeon whose eggs will be farmed for the delicacy.

This is not the vast tract of land one might expect for such a venture and in fact the entire plot is not much bigger than two five-a-side football pitches arranged in an L shape.

The families whose houses the currently vacant plot lies between are among the most concerned.

Janet Downes, whose house is at the foot of Mr Benning’s fields, said: “We live in this quiet beautiful place and the site he has chosen doesn’t naturally lend itself to this type of farm so in order to build it he’ll have to excavate tens of thousands of tons of earth in what is quite a small space.

“It will be visible beyond the boundaries of his property – it will be visible from the Downs in fact.

“And it will draw water from the tiny winterbourne where the sea trout spawn.”

The Save Our Sea Trout campaign is inspired by this specific concern.

It is not that the five-foot-long sturgeon could actually access or devour the native species, as the posters perhaps imply, because the whole fish farm would be ‘offline’ and unconnected to the waterways.

But since there is no stream which would feed Mr Benning’s plot, the concern is that the substantial ponds would draw too much water from a seasonal source which only barely suffices to provide sanctuary as a breeding ground for sea trout once a year.

Mrs Downes characterised the plan as “a semi-industrial scheme in a rural place that barely qualifies as a hamlet”.

She added: “It’s a totally inappropriate place for a fish farm, hence our slogan: wrong thing, wrong place.”

The plans submitted to Lewes District Council include a permit to abstract 20,000 litres of water per day from the winterbourne, which this week was only a few inches deep and barely moving.

John St Pierre, vice chairman of the Ouse and Adur Rivers Trust, told The Argus: “We are not vehemently against the proposal although it seems a strange place for a fish farm.

“All we are concerned about is if it does go ahead that measures are in place to protect the ecology of the stream.”

He said the current plans do not include sufficient safeguards.

Jonathan Britton would also be a neighbour to the caviar farm should it get the go-ahead. He, his wife and five children moved into their substantial property – complete with 17th century listed farmhouse, tennis court, county-standard cricket net and a swimming pool with pool house – in 1990.

Having invested in a “heritage asset” in a hamlet designated by town planners as unsuitable for further development, he is baffled and frustrated by the suggestion that his community could be so dramatically altered.

But he insists this is not mere nimbyism.

He said: “I’m hugely pro business, I sit on the board of the British Business Bank and I’d like nothing more than to see him be successful but this is such an inappropriate site which will have massive impact on the landscape.

“There will be noise pollution from the wind turbine, there will be light pollution at night, there will be farm traffic on this quiet road.

“And according to the plans he also expects the site to attract rats and mink, which can be very unpleasant animals.”

Mr Britton, 62, has a longer-term concern too.

He said: “What if the business doesn’t survive in the short or long term? What happens to the site then?

“At that point there will be concreted paths, polyurethane tunnels and tanks, it won’t just grow back over. Our concern is that you’ll be left with a scar on the landscape and a set of buildings which people will use for something else. Possibly a dwelling.”

There are indeed rumours in the village that the plans, which include permission for a three-bedroom “mobile home” on concrete foundations, are the latest attempt by the Benning family to build a home on the property.

“The family have never made a secret that they’d like to build a house there,” said one villager who preferred to remain anonymous.

Mr Benning rejects any such suggestions.

Finally there are the concerns of villagers with young families.

Donna Vize-Martin and her husband Tim, both 38, live on Chiltington Lane with their young daughters Juliet and Bonnie.

Mrs Vize-Martin said: “I’ve got environmental concerns about drawing water from the stream but also the stream runs through the edge of our garden and I like that our children can paddle and splash in it.”

She added: “This lane gets used constantly for leisure activities: walking, running, cycling, horse riding. We don’t need traffic from farm vehicles and lorries reversing.”

The plans are not due for a final decision until October 10 and the area’s district councillor – Liberal Democrat group leader Sarah Osborne – is firmly with opponents of the scheme.

It seems these motivated and mobilised villagers are unlikely to give up the fight for their small corner of rural England any time soon.


WHEN Ken Benning took The Argus on a guided tour of his East Chiltington plot he described his vision for Sussex’s first caviar farm and seemed confident of being able to rebut each of his new neighbours’ concerns.

He said: “The pumps are silent. There are two 2.5kw pumps which move the water from the lower clean water pond up to the sturgeon tanks and they’re submerged, you can’t hear them.”

Even the 11m wind turbine is inaudible from distances of 100m, he insists, which puts it out of the range of any listening ears.

The threat to trout is nonsense, he says.  The Wealden clay of the area means his unlined ponds will retain the water with which he fills them so the farm will only need to drain the adjacent stream on a few occasions per year.

“And anyway, 20,000 litres a day even if we used it is only about the same as leaving a tap running. It’s a quarter of a litre per second.”

There won’t be traffic because the fish are only harvested once every two years and the earthworks will only take six weeks.

The ecology will be enhanced not violated, with the planting of wildflowers and beehives in order to beautify the area for presentational purposes.

So his message to the angry citizens of East Chiltington is simple: “I’m not going to cause you any trouble. Nobody will even notice it’s here. Please just let me get on and do some farming.”