Stopped On The Lands – Guidance On What To Do

Background

Since March this year we have received persistent reports from riders who have been stopped by Landmarc or DIO representatives to be told either “cycling is against the byelaws” or “cycling is only permitted on made up tracks”. 

This policy is at odds to the jointly agreed statement issued by TAG and Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) in July 2019 (see this link to our Facebook Page post).

TAG had not been informed of this change in policy that requires cyclists sticking to the fire roads, nor advised that staff have been instructed to stop cyclists.

Furthermore, no amendments have been requested by DIO either prior to publication or since and so TAG consider the original agreement remains relevant.

Issues

We have challenged this recent change in policy and its purpose. Various reasons have been given – mostly due to wildlife legislation protecting the lands – but as wildlife laws apply equally to all public use of the lands we cannot consider them reasonable justification to single out cyclists for special treatment.

In spite of requests seeking evidence no documentation has supplied leaving us to conclude the policy is flawed, baseless and without good reason. Other recreational users – walkers, joggers and even horse riders – are not subject to restrictions, so why are cyclists treated as a special case?

We view the timing and introduction of this policy as a potential act of ‘softening up’ the community, preparing them for what new byelaws may or may not permit. If true, this makes a mockery of the forthcoming consultation and draws its legitimacy into question.

We have not been alone in being singled out for special treatment. In 2014 Landmarc/DIO was targeting Farnham Ramblers for organising group walks. With strong national representation the Ramblers prevailed and ended up with a broad agreement with DIO – you can read about it here:

https://www.farnhamramblers.org.uk/50-leaders/181-walking-on-mod-land.html

We see the jointly agreed TAG/DIO statement as closely aligned with the Ramblers agreement.

So what are we to do if stopped riding on the lands?

This simple checklist is based on the Ramblers example and is intended to promote reasonable and consistent engagement with DIO and Landmarc representatives:

  • First step is to establish who has stopped your ride. Politely ask for some identity and whom they are representing. Under the current byelaws any person who is not MOD police, a serving officer or NCO must be authorised in writing and asking to see this is not unreasonable. If the individual refuses, politely disengage and continue your ride.
  • Establish why you are being stopped;
    1. If the reason is due to nearby military training then be prepared to change your plans and alter your route if necessary. Ask for advice; seek alternative unused areas and vacate any training area where training is underway using a route that reduces the risks of disturbing troops.
    2. If the reason is given “cycling is against the byelaws” or “you must stick to the made up roads” then politely remind the person that DIO and TAG published a joint statement in July 2019 legitmising responsible cycling on the lands and that the statement made no reference to using made up tracks.
  • If the person remains adamant and insists you leave the lands or must stick to the fire roads then make a note of the location, date and time in addition to the name of the individual. Comply with the request and afterwards please contact TAG and let us know the details.
  • If the situation becomes in any way uncomfortable disengage with the individual and leave the area. Report the occurrence to MOD control room on 01420 483 405 and provide date, time and location of the incident. Afterwards contact TAG and let us know too.

At all times follow the TAG Code of Conduct. Remember we are ambassadors for our sport and we should always uphold high standards of respect for the lands and those who train on them. 

Summary

The individuals on the ground will have been tasked by their chain of command and are following a direct order – we have no cause for complaint with them and have some sympathy for anyone simply doing their job and being placed in what may be an uncomfortable situation. At all times maintaining a high level mutual respect will do much to maintain good relations between all concerned so remain polite irrespective of any provocation.

Rest assured we will remain engaged with DOI and we will keep everyone up to date if there are further changes. In the meantime please remember, our collective grievance lays solely at the feet of the individual(s) responsible for what remains an irrational, unreasonable and discriminatory policy towards cyclists.

Logging the Lands

Logging work has started again on the Military Lands and this news is rarely well received by the mountain biking community. The work takes a few weeks at most but many see the work as doing long-term damage to the forest and the trails we love. Its even been suggested the logging is deliberately intended to trash where we ride. These views are understandable. However there is always a differing view and TAG thought it was time to have a look at the issues.

The trails are being trashed.

On the face of it, yes they are. But rest assured its only temporary and in time the lands will recover and the scars vanish. Some of us in TAG can remember the last time the forest was logged…it was 1990 or thereabouts and we now struggle to remember the damage done.

Our favourite regular routes were utterly wrecked.

Trails come and trails go. Routes used in the 1980s have persisted and some have vanished. The forest and heath may seem a very static and unchanging place but its always changing, mostly on a natural timescale. And for this reason logging and clearance is necessary – the pine forest would come to dominate everything and with that we would lose natural diversity.

It’s also worth noting that historical logging – done decades ago – opened up parts of the forest we now use. The extraction trails carved by the logging vehicles have become new routes and trails in their own right. It just needs a little time and patience and there will be new routes opening up. We need to see the long-term opportunity rather than the short-term damage.

Why leave the cut branches lying around?

This stuff – the brash – is a right PITA to try and ride over. No one likes it – MTB or Army – but leaving it behind does help spread the weight of the logging vehicles and in the long term returns some nutrients to the soil. Ultimately, it costs more to remove than let rot, so its left behind. Burning the stuff is one way to get rid of the mess, but this just adds more CO2 to the planet’s atmosphere and reduces air quality. Whilst leaving it to rot ultimately results in the release of CO2, the process takes much longer than burning and at least a portion of the CO2 is locked into the vegetation that the rotting matter nourishes.

This is environmental vandalism. They are wrecking the forest!

It certainly looks brutal, but clearing the forest is nothing new.

It’s worth stopping for a moment and thinking how the heaths were formed. The lowland heaths have been around for at least 3,500 years when humans decided to stop widespread hunting, cleared the area by burning and started to graze animals. The lowland heaths are a product of human intervention, and as such become a rare habitat that needs tweaking and caring for.  If you cycle across Ash Ranges – huge area of heath – you can see tiny pine trees pushing up through the heather. Do nothing and trees and scrub will invade and take over.

By clearing and thinning the tree canopy areas of the forest floor receive more sunlight and letting other wildlife have a chance and stops the heather from being crowded out.

SBrown-20190215-0006

The open vistas of lowland heath are very much man-made.

MOD just wants MTB to go away. This is another way to get us off the land.

TAG does not agree with the MOD, or more specifically DIO, policy towards cycling on the Aldershot Military lands. The current approach goes against their own internal policy document and recommendations. With respect to any policy restricting recreational access TAG always will oppose unnecessary, unreasonable or draconian restrictions. However, when it comes to actually caring for the lands MOD does a pretty good job.

It’s very easy to see everything through the narrow perspective of mountain biking but the conservation work done by MOD helps preserve and protect the lands and keep them valuable for things other than houses, which here in the southeast is no mean feat.

TAG have spoken to the people actually logging the lands and they were really clear; there is no policy to trash trails for the sake of it. They are there to thin and log trees and are not going to be looking to add to their workload.

But they still trashed the trails!

Have a look at the pile of logs in this photo:

SBrown-20190129-0001

It has taken nearly 30 years, but this pile of pine logs is slowly disappearing.

The pile of pine was logged sometime around 1990 and used to reach way over 6’ in height. In the early 90s a certain rider by the name of Martyn Ashton used to practice riding over it whilst I watched and wondered how he did it? That round of logging in the 90s saw some trails go, but only for a few months.

Now the pile has nearly gone. It’s rotting away and has become a source of food for the local wildlife. Sure, its taken a few decades but a 6’ pile of pine is going to take a while to disappear. Give it 12 months and the signs of logging and thinning will start to fade – this can already be seen in areas that were logged in 2017 & 2018.

What about the wildlife?

The lowland heaths and sandy well-drained soils not only make excellent mountain biking but also for wildlife. Adders, deer, woodpeckers, ground nesting birds and lizards all call it home and spotting any one of these on a ride is a huge bonus.

Ask a rider why they ride the lands and you will never get the same answer, but in the TAG report (2017) a fair few respondents listed being close to nature and wildlife as a very good reason to get out of the house and enjoy the lands.

If you are still not convinced, then consider this: land being considered special and protected for wildlife helps keep the housing developers off the land. With cash strapped MOD, someone in Whitehall must have eyed the lands for sale…only to be told “Can’t do it – SSSI”.

Looking Back & Looking Forward

As one year draws to a close it’s a good time to look back at what has passed, and onwards to what is to come.

2018

2018 has seen a tentative meeting with DIO fizzle out to nothing, in spite of the meeting minutes recording further contact. We have witnessed the imposition of fences and locked gates when the lands behind them seem underused and empty. Granted the gates have been unlocked at times, but its fair to say 2018 has been a difficult year for access. We now wonder if the tentative meeting with DIO was not conducted with good faith, just a box ticking exercise? We will continue to remind MOD of their obligations to open the gates when the land is not in use for military training, and a lack of manpower to lock and unlock gates must not be used as an excuse to restrict or limit public access.

2019 And Beyond

Looking forward the community may well be faced with significant changes in 2019. If the planned review of the Bylaws that govern the land are on track then we will see the draft laws published for consultation. TAG have no idea what changes are planned, but with MOD in charge of authoring the laws we can predict who they will favour – and as we have seen with fences encroaching on access, MOD have demonstrated imposition is their preferred means and consultation with the local community as unnecessary. The laws will be subject to consultation, but will this be meaningful? Or a box ticking exercise?

We are all part of a community that shares a love of the Military Lands. We all need to get along and remember it might be a dog walker/jogger/cyclist/equestrian that could be the one who steps up and helps when things go wrong. Would anyone refuse to help or be helped by the others? No, of course we wouldn’t. Everyone I pass is greeted with a “Hi” or “Hello” and very few fail to return the greeting…helping a fellow rider with a broken chain or a dog walker locate their missing pet is all part of small gesture intended to make the world a slightly better place. The community is better for it.

So as we head into 2019 perhaps now more than ever the joggers, equestrians, dog walkers and MTB riders may be forced to work together for a greater good; ensuring the Bylaw review maintains or extends the right of recreation on the lands. The vast majority are not opposed in any way to military training and no one wants to disrupt troops at work. The TAG guidelines make it clear such activities take priority. But when the lands are empty of troops responsible recreation for all must not only welcomed, but also required for the physical and mental health of all of us.

It’s a bit of an old cliché, but it’s nice to be nice. Lets make 2019 a happier, more community spirited year. As we ride, it’s worth remembering that we are all ambassadors for the sport we love, and to be mindful of others who use the land too.

TAG and MOD – Tentative Progress

Here at TAG we tend to to post many updates or announcements, unless we really have news or information to share. Truth is, we would rather be out riding our bikes and not stuck in front of a keyboard…

But we do have some news, and feel its a good time to share with the MTB community.

Last month representatives from Cycling UK, British Horse Society, Hampshire Access Forum and TAG were invited to a meeting with DIO. The primary purpose of the meeting was to discuss access routes across the military training lands, routes that would be suitable for both horses and cyclists alike and open for use at all times.

Now we all know a few permissive tracks across the land are not going to really reflect how MTB riders use the land, but TAG are going to support them and their use for the benefit of all. There is the potential for wider permissive access and right now we have no firm commitment to share, but given the positive mood of the meeting TAG feel there is an opportunity the like of which we have never seen before.

The meeting was an opportunity to discuss other matters, to explore ways of making life easier for both the troops who train and the likes of MTB who ride on the land. It will probably come as no surprise the kind of behaviour and issues that give DIO the most concern are:

  • Digging of jumps, step ups etc.
  • Night riding and disturbing troops.

Both matters consumed around 40 minutes of the meeting, preventing us from moving onto more positive matters. TAG do understand the concerns raised.

Any digging activity ends up with two outcomes: The construction will be flattened and DIO will break off future meetings. This one is easy to fix: If you dig and build, now is the time to pause and put the shovel down.

For the record: There is a possible opportunity that an area will be set aside where digging and building will be permitted. To that end, if you dig and want to have a say in a possible location then please get in touch with TAG.

Night riding is another concern, but trickier to resolve. TAG have made it clear that communication is going to be the key here. We are convinced the MTB community will gladly change a planned ride route if its known troops are out at night. Our recent experience of the film crew at Eelmoor has given us confidence, and for those who change their route we say “Thank you for your support”. For now, do please remember the TAG code of conduct while we see if progress cannot be made on on letting the public know where and when land is in use.

After five years of disengagement with the MTB community DIO now recognise there is mutual benefit in talking to TAG and we really welcome and appreciate the shift in policy. We are at the beginning of a long journey and things will take time, but TAG do feel we are heading in a very positive direction that will benefit all.

The Countdown Begins

As an advocacy group for mountain biking across the Military Lands, TAG has a simple goal: To ensure cyclists have the right to use the lands for responsible recreation when said lands are not in use by the military.

This can be achieved in two ways: By the Commanding Officer granting such permission, or by a review of the Byelaw.

TAG have been given notice by Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) that the timeline is now in place for the Aldershot and District Military Lands Byelaws for the following areas:

  • Aldershot Long Valley
  • Aldershot Garrison
  • Hawley, Minley and Camberley
  • Pirbright Camp, Ash Ranges and Bisley Ranges.

All remaining areas of military land in the area will be subject to a separate byelaw, and work will commence on that area as soon as the new byelaws have been made.

DIO will be drafting the new laws before putting them out for public consultation. From the documents supplied there is no indication if interested parties and stakeholders will have any say on what the byelaws actually say before the public get their chance to raise objections.

Public consultation is scheduled to begin in June 2019 and the new byelaw is expected to be signed into law by February 2020.

This is an opportunity for the community to ensure the lands remain open to everyone when training is not underway. It is likely the byelaws governing the lands will not be reviewed for another 40 years so it is vital they maintain, enhance and reflect exactly how the public wish to use them.

Other military land byelaws have been reviewed and cycling has become a permitted form of recreation. This is within MOD’s own guidelines. TAG expect nothing less than full access for cyclists in the Aldershot and Longmoor areas too.

We shall be preparing a full response in due course, but in the meantime it is vital that we have as much support as possible from local MPs and councillors, who can bring influence and pressure on DIO to finally recognise their own guidance and policy documents. It is therefore vital we have representation that is supportive to the cycling community. TAG will be seeking and publishing the views of every candidate on this subject in the forthcoming local elections.

Remember, this is close to once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to set the laws fairly for all. We have much to gain.

TAG MTB Survey – The Results

Firstly, on behalf of Trail Action Group, I would like to say a huge “Thank you” to everyone who took the time to respond to the recent survey. We all think it is vitally important that the Aldershot and District lands are recognised for the immense value they bring to the local cycling community and the results now allow everyone to quantify and understand the deep feelings we all hold for the land, and the respect for those who work and train there.

At 60 pages the report is quite long, so if this feels  little daunting we would recommend the Summary and Appendix 8.3 are worthy of reading in full.

Appendix 8.3 contains the summary of where we gave the chance for mountain bikers to explain why accessing the land was important. This section was written by the respondents, in their own words. The responses do not provide any hard data or facts, but does convey the emotive passion, the joy and pleasure that the lands bring to our lives. Reading them is a real delight and its heartwarming to find that so many share a common, respectful view and understand the benefits access brings.

Finally, TAG would like to thank the cyclists and unicyclist who posed for the images that illustrate the report.

The full report is in PDF format and may be dowloaded here:

TAGAccessReportFinal20170901

Survey Time – Do you ride on the military lands?

TAG are seeking some background information from the MTB community that rides on the military lands. If you ride in the following places, we would like to hear from you:-

  • Minley Manor & Yateley Heath
  • Pystock and Fleet Pond surrounds.
  • Long Valley
  • Caesars Camp and Beacon Hill
  • Ash Ranges
  • Tunnel Hill
  • Porridge Pot & Windmill Hill
  • Bagshot Heath north and south
  • Barrossa Common
  • Hankley Common
  • Longmoor Ranges

The survey can be found here:-

TAG MTB Survey

We would really appreciate your responses. No one is compelled to give their name, email address etc, but we may need to follow up with some respondents to clarify some of the answers, so an email address and permission to contact you would be just perfect. It kind of goes without saying that we will not be sharing your personal details with anyone else…but that information will remain confidential.

The survey should not take too long – thanks in advance for your time. It is appreciated and will be useful in our ongoing discussions with the landowner.