THE country’s first humane caviar farm is a step closer to being made in a tiny Sussex village.

Planning officers for Lewes District Council have recommended that an application for a six-acre fish farm in East Chiltington, north of Plumpton, be granted by councillors at a meeting next week.

The proposal has faced massive opposition from the 260 residents of the village, with more than 100 objections received since the plans were submitted in August.

Zsolt Kerekes, whose property is adjacent to the fallow fields on which the fish ponds would be sited, said that villagers still held out hope that councillors would turn down the application, which officers said should be granted subject to 26 caveats.

Mr Kerekes said: “There were 110 objection letters, and not a single letter of support from the village.

“If common sense has anything to do with it there’d be no caviar farm in East Chiltington.”

“The consultation has raised a lot of issues which are now in the public domain so I want councillors to make their own decisions based on all that. This definitely isn’t the end of the fight.”

Fine food importer Ken Benning, the man behind the venture, said of the recommendation: “I would hope we’d get it through and I’d hope the committee are non biased in all of this.

“All these objections have taken their toll on me this year it’s been very distressing. They have taken any form of joy out of us getting this decision, if we get it, because of what they’ve put me and my family through.”

He added: “If it gets turned down we’re going straight to appeal.”

In September The Argus broke the news of the plans which 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, at least two of which would be used to rear the five-foot sturgeon whose eggs will be farmed for the delicacy.

The novel methodology to be used will be humane insofar as the sturgeon will not be killed. Instead their eggs will be harvested and they will be returned to the water to breed again.

But residents of the hamlet say the farm will scar the landscape, disrupt their peaceful community and drain water from sea trout spawning grounds.

The fight has become particularly fractious between Mr Benning - who purchased the site from his parents - and his immediate neighbours.

At least one Lewes District councillor will be working hard to convince her colleagues who sit on the planning committee to overturn the officers’ recommendation.

Liberal Democrat leader Sarah Osborne, who lives in the village, told The Argus: “I feel very strongly and I’ll be lobbying councillors and I’ll be speaking for the objectors in the meeting."

She claimed she would not be personally affected by the development and was performing her democratic duty, adding: “If I lived miles away and that was the feeling of the local community I’d be speaking for them. That’s my job.”


IF THIS story appeared on The Archers, the BBC would be overwhelmed with complaints that it was too far fetched.

And yet the arrival of a caviar farm – the country’s first of its kind – in an idyllic hamlet on the edge of the South Downs is not only possible but probable after planning officers recommended it should get the go-ahead.

And yet the closer you look, the more bizarre this story becomes.

Ken Benning, who launched Exmoor Caviar in 2010 after a career in importing fine foods, is the ebullient and bombastic driving force behind the plans, having bought the sought-after patch of land from his parents.

The Argus has found it nigh impossible to find a single villager to speak up for Mr Benning or his plans for the hamlet in which he grew up – but he insists any bad blood is not down to him.

Asked whether he could have handled his business venture differently he said: “I approached them from day one and they said ‘There’s no point in meeting with you’.”

He insists his plans will not cause the disturbance that villagers fear. He said underwater pumps will be near silent, a wind turbine will not be visible from beyond the property and that the tiny winterbourne will not be drained beyond its capacity to support native trout populations who which go there to breed.

His message to the angry villagers of East Chiltington is simple: ““From the objection and protests you’d think I was trying to build Hinkley Point here. But I’m not going to cause any trouble. Nobody will even notice it’s here. Please just let me get on and do some farming.”

His neighbour, steely-eyed financier Jonathan Britton, made his money in banking and moved his family into the “heritage asset” farmhouse which abuts the fields in 1990.

The substantial improvements he has made to the 17th century listed property, including tennis court, county-standard cricket net and a swimming pool complete with pool-house, are listed in the planning officer’s report as examples of changes to the neighbourhood which have not had a detrimental effect on the village.

He told The Argus his opposition to the farm was not nimbyism, saying: “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 a 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.”

He also had concerns over the future of the site if the business failed, although the officers have insisted that the business puts funds aside to restore the site in such an eventuality.

Janet Downes, whose house is at the foot of Mr Benning’s fields, is another of the most vociferous opponents of the scheme, churning out posters and briefing materials.

She and her husband Zsolt Kerekes have launched a website – – to oppose the plan and have popularised the eye-catching and cartoonish Save Our Sea Trout signs in the quiet country lane through the village. Dozens of residents have joined her protests.

She 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.”

Ms Downes said it the plan was “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.”

However, planning officers disagree. They have concluded the “aquaponic” system, which is kept offline from the main water course, will not have an adverse impact on the environment. They say plans for low-lying onsite buildings, along with the preservation of existing trees and hedges, will not have an impact on nearby listed buildings and disruption from construction will be only brief.

Furthermore the risk of flooding will not increase as a result of the ponds and the sea trout will be protected after Mr Benning revised the scheme to minimise the water which needs to be abstracted from the winterbourne.

All in all, officers say, “the proposed development would sit comfortably within the confines of the site, albeit with re-contouring of the land and new landscaping, without detriment to the wider surroundings or the living conditions of nearby neighbours and those that use the lane”.

Book a seat if you can on Wednesday when Lewes District Council’s planning committee considers the proposal. That conclusion will not go unchallenged.


THE recommendation by officers of Lewes District Council to approve transforming two fallow fields into the world’s first aquaponic caviar farm is not unconditional.

Foremost among their stipulations is a requirement that the site be restored to its natural state if the business ceases trading.

These may go some way to allaying one of the residents’ primary concerns: what happens to the temporary structures, the polyurethane sheeting, the ponds, the pumps, the turbine and the concrete paths if Ken Benning goes bust?

Point 13 of their report says: “If the development hereby approved ceases to be occupied or used as a fish farm producing caviar for a continuous period of 12 months or more, the use hereby permitted shall cease, all buildings and structures shall be removed and the land shall be restored to its former condition within six months of the cessation of use. ”

How that would be enforced if the business was as belly up as a dead sturgeon is not addressed.

There have also been fears in the village that the business plan is an elaborate cover for a the aim of building a home on the plot, plans for which have been repeatedly denied. There is no suggestion this is true though.

Mr Benning refutes that accusation but residents may be reassured that officers propose any temporary dwelling to house a fish farm worker be only licensed for that purpose and be removed by November 2019.

The officers also insist that earthworks vehicles be washed before leaving the site, that any trees or shrubs damaged or removed be replaced and that external or security lighting not be installed without further written approval.

Construction work will only be able to take place during office hours and access will have to be well back from the road so vehicles waiting to enter the site do not obstruct the country lane.

So concerns over noise, light and water pollution are assessed to be unfounded based on the latest plans and further concerns are addressed in the 23 conditions set out by officers.

One could almost believe that Sussex’s most controversial new farming project will proceed with positivity and goodwill on all sides. Almost.