The green fields and typical English woodland of Sandleford Down were the inspiration for one of our favourite books and animated movies – Watership Down.

But now, as the story is retold in a mini-series for a new generation, this area is set to be turned into a housing estate.

It seems a sad case of truth being worse than fiction as Gemma Arterton’s rabbit Clover warns in the BBC’s new adaptation: “There’s terrible evil in the world… men will never rest till they’ve spoiled the Earth and destroyed the animals.”

The march of urban development is set to wreak havoc at the home of the book’s imaginary creatures, as the fate of Sandleford Warren will be decided in weeks, with plans for more than 1,500 houses.

The beautiful Berkshire meadows that inspired author Richard Adams’ portentous tale of Hazel, Fiver and their friends’ quest for survival could be ripped up and concreted over as soon as next summer.

Sandleford Warren’s importance as a local landmark for a much-loved work of fiction has not been enough to secure its ancient woodlands.

Many hikers, tourists and fans of Adams’ book have followed the rabbits’ epic trek from Sandleford Warren, across the River Enborne, past the hounds at Nuthanger Farm to the beauty spot of Watership Down – all real places in one of England’s most beautiful landscapes.

Locals are adamant the plans will negatively affect the area and the tourism the love of Watership Down brings.

Chris Webb, landlord of The Royal Oak, in Ecchinswell, Newbury, sums up the general feeling.

He says: “We get lots of hiking groups here doing the Watership Down walk – it’s a beautiful area.

“As a country pub, it’s a double-edged sword for us. On the one hand, it means more customers move into the area, but we lose customers who come here because we’re a lovely rural pub.”

The original movie left cinema audiences of children in tears as the tale of fluffy bunnies descended into nightmarish scenes of dead and dying rabbits.

And, even though the violence has been toned down for the new two-part drama being shown on BBC1 tonight and tomorrow, it is only recommended for eight-year-olds and above.

Voiced by a star-studded cast of actors, including James McAvoy, Olivia Colman and Ben Kingsley, the hard-hitting ecological message of the harrowing 1978 animation classic is being brought back to life to warn about the perils of destroying our planet.

The environmental disaster message is even more terrifying today than when Adams wrote his 1972 best-seller about a band of brave rabbits whose warren is destroyed by housing developers.

Tragically, the late author had no idea how prophetic his fictional story would turn out to be.

The sad real-life tale of green destruction began in 2012, when town planners from West Berkshire Council granted approval to Bloor Homes and Donnington New Homes to build 2,000 homes on a green-field site on the outskirts of Newbury bordering an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in neighbouring Hampshire.

Adams was born and brought up in the area and, before his death in December, 2016, the frail 96-year-old battled valiantly to stop the diggers from destroying the woods and fields of his childhood adventures.

Adams blasted council officials, saying: “It is my firm belief that to build on the quiet meadows of Sandleford Warren would be an ugly invasion, a nasty wound to one of the loveliest retreats in all Berkshire and Hampshire.

“A residential development here would destroy the area’s character and, in planning terms, I must say, would constitute an ugly addition, sticking out rather nastily from the rest of Newbury.”

Despite the objections of anti-development group Say No To Sandleford, West Berkshire’s planning inspector approved the housing scheme.

Peter Norman, spokesman for the group, says: “Our principal objections are the adverse effect a development of this size would have on a historic landscape that provides a green lung to Newbury, with its ancient woodlands and scattered habitat.”

But the council insists the correct decision was made, saying: “The site, together with all supporting information and proposed alternatives, was independently assessed and approved by the Planning Inspectorate.”

Despite the early win for developers, not a single clod of earth has been moved by diggers. Building has been halted for the past eight years by bitter wrangling over only having two access routes to the site.

However, two planning applications have now been submitted for the development of up to 1,080 dwellings and 500 dwellings across the whole Sandleford site, and are being considered by the Local Planning Authority.

If they finally get the green light, the bulldozers will move in next summer.

Yet, even though the local wildlife trust has objected to the two applications and the builders’ own ecologists recognise the biodiversity of the site’s ancient copse wood, Mr Norman says wildlife groups have failed to come to the rescue of the rabbits and other protected species including bats, skylarks and migrating lapwings.

But Sam Cartwright, senior biodiversity and planning officer of the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust, says: “Sadly many of the main sticking points to the development from other parties have not been ecology, but we have objected to the building plans on the basis of the detrimental impact it will have on the habitat of local wildlife and made a series of recommendations including larger buffer zones… to protect the site’s ancient woodlands.”

The council claims the ecology of the area is being taken into consideration, saying: "The applications include Environmental Impact Assessments which seek to ensure the environment is protected and enhanced and any impacts appropriately mitigated.”

The final decision on the rabbits’ warren is to be made on January 31, but sentiments by Adams not long before he died seem worryingly telling.

“If Sandleford goes for development, it will be the thin end of the wedge,” he wrote. “Once an area of countryside has been broken into for development, the process continues until the whole area has been ruined.

"I might be dead, but how will you feel about that?”

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