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.

Time for Change – Byelaws Fit For Purpose

A law that preserves recreational use must also protect access. Without protection the lands will remain at risk of imposed fencing and greater restrictions.

Prior to 1854 the lands were open and considered vital for the recreation and general good health of the population. In 1854 the army were awarded the Aldershot lands for the purposes of military training. For the next 164 years recreation was permitted whenever the lands were not in use for training. In 1976 public access for recreation became enshrined in law;  it is clear that military training takes precedent but when not being used for this purpose the community must be at liberty to enjoy it. It is a shared space, for military and civilians alike. 

A cyclist enjoying sunrise at Caesars Camp. Without protection from fencing the recreational potential of these areas are at risk.

In 2018 the simple principle of recreational access was unilaterally and arbitrary changed by Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) as they undertook a program of fence construction. Public exclusion, irrespective of training activity, has become the de facto approach and is in contravention to a 2003 recommendation that asked the DIO to form closer working relationships with the public.

Since 2018, 1540 acres of the lands have been permanently fenced off, excluding access even when the lands are not in use. Over time, left unchecked, there is nothing to stop the entire area being fenced off and lost forever. The lands are a highly valued and vital space for maintaining and enhancing both physical and mental health. The DIO must not be allowed to arbitrarily and unilaterally remove access via a series of stealth measures.

We are therefore calling for a new byelaw, one that preserves recreation and protects access for the public in the way that was always intended. A law that protects recreation alone is not fit for purpose and will fail the community as more lands are fenced and become no-go zones.

TAG have prepared a position paper clearly stating what changes are necessary and you can download a copy here:

The consultation period for the byelaw has not yet started but we must not wait. The DIO method of ‘consultation’ is to tell people what has been decided, not to invite comment and to ignore suggestions for improvement. We seek real change and the new byelaw must work for all parties and preserve the space for the local community and future generations.

If there is just one positive thing you can do right now it is this; write to your MP now telling them that you support the position paper and insist the military lands remain open and accessible for recreation when not in use.

You can find and write to your local MP using the www.writetothem.com website.

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.

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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:

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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”.