A Nice Little Earner

Last year we reported how the byelaws would be used to create Controlled Areas where no-one would be permitted to go unless DIO said so. These restrictions were deemed necessary by DIO and we quote them directly:

…the need to balance the sometime conflicting requirements of enhanced public access with the conservation piece.

Its unclear what is really meant by enhanced when the current byelaws make it clear access is permitted at all times when not in use? It is also unclear why such draconian restrictions are really needed when the 2600 acres of Pirbright Ranges – a 24/7 no-go area – is already off limits.

We have also seen a recent spate of trail building at Tunnel Hill. This has reportedly been assessed as “criminal damage”.

But TAG see the issues as less clear-cut and the summary might read financial benefits beat principles hands down.. The following post picks into each and examines how DIO themselves treat the lands.

The Conservation Piece

Firstly, we set out what this piece isn’t about. We are not examining how the army use the lands as military training is the primary reason to exist as open space. The army are pretty good custodians and those chemical toilets we see are there to reduce the nutrient load (poo and wee if you are under 7) on the heathland.

The heathland is a rare and important habitat. Well drained sandy soils with low nutrients are what make up most of the military training estate. The underlying geology is very poor agricultural land which is why the army found a huge open space to train at Aldershot in 1854. The area is so special it has an organisation devoted to caring for it – The Thames Basin Partnership – and DIO are listed as a partner.

Three designations protect the lands:

  • Site of Specific Scientific Interest – SSSI
  • Special Protected Area – SPA
  • Priority Habitat – Lowland Heath

The SPA designation is important at this time of year. Ground nesting birds (GNBs in MTB-speak) use the open spaces of the heath to nurture and raise their young. We can all do our bit to help by following the guidance. TAG certainly recognise the value GNBs bring for their presence helps prevent development.

We were surprised to find a filmset plonked on top of the heather at Tunnel Hill. Checking the wildlife designation maps the set is set in an area covered by SSSI, SPA and Priority Habitat.

Worse still, the set is being constructed right at the start of GNB season.

A filmset on top of the dry heathland right at the start of GNB nesting season. Just what conservation needs.

Filming and filmsets earn hard cash. Everyone needs to earn a crust but it’s galling to read DIO wish to block recreational access for conservation reasons whilst allowing commercial activity to do the opposite of what conservation really needs.

Rumour has it George Clooney is directing a film and I bet the birds will appreciate the star studded presence on the common. Or maybe not.

Hypocrisy? We certainly think so. But it gets worse…lets have a look at the trail digging issue.

Shift the Dirt

Before we go into this one…we need to stress the issues of digging trail features cause:

Taking a shovel onto the land with the idea of digging a new jump or building a berm without the landowners permission is going put the sport we love in a very bad light.

A little light trail maintenance that reduces harm and reduces landowner risk isn’t going to trigger a visit by the trail flattening crew but a new gulley jump or step up does not fit into TAG’s code of conduct.

The recent trail building at Tunnel Hill have stepped over the line and deep into creating a problem for the wider MTB community. We hear MOD police taped off the area whilst muttering “criminal damage” and the flattening crew have already paid a visit removing the trail.

But hold on a minute. Are MTB the only users of the lands who shift a bit of dirt?

Setting aside the army again (training primacy rules) we are aware of land users who shift a lot of dirt.

And before anyone thinks we are bashing another user group…rest assured we are not…

Every year the Natterjack Enduro is run in one of the local areas. Last year it was Weavers Down near Bordon and for a couple of years it was run in Long Valley.

When it comes to moving soil these boys and girls can shift more dirt in one lap than the local digging community can move in a year.

The course of the enduro will persist for a long time. The route of the 2018 enduro can still be seen and ridden in Long Valley but watching some of the UK and European champions on our own doorstep comes highly recommended.

But hang on…isn’t there a difference between random trail building and authorised and paid for events?

Yes, very much so.

But seeing the issue of trail building labelled “criminal damage” is particularly galling for TAG volunteers who worked on the DIO-solicited digging area proposals…please read on…

In 2019 Mark Ludlow (Security and Access) and Lt Cdr Bishop (Commanding Officer) both expressed an interest in seeing digging conducted in a managed way…TAG were tasked with pulling together a proposal for two potential areas…research was done…digger community fellows approached for their views…areas scoped and a report written and delivered.

And then silence.

Not even an acknowledgement of receipt or the report’s existence. The cost to TAG was volunteer time and we remain at a loss to understand how civil servants could treat taxpayers with such contempt.

Had the report been enacted we are confident the lands and our community would be in a different place.

And before anyone runs around repeating the oft heard “cycling is against the byelaws” as a defence for DIO’s behaviour please remember the 2019 agreement between TAG and DIO legitimising cycling on the lands is a very real thing no matter what DIO might be asserting in private.

There is a Parliamentary Ombudsman complaint on DIO’s failures to engage in good faith with the local community working its way through the process. We will report back once we hear its findings.

Back to the issue of enduros and trail diggers shifting the soil…

To reiterate the point…in no way are we opposed to the land being used for an enduro. TAG believes the lands should be accessible to all, including organised motorsport.

But we do not appreciate hypocrisy… double standards are deeply objectionable and TAG firmly believes the Seven Principles of Public Life are considered optional by DIO staff.

Follow the Money

In TAG’s view it seems DIO will give a green light to landscape the grounds or build a film set on top of an SSSI/SPA as long as their palms are crossed with silver.

Recreational access is generally very low impact in these areas but because no one pays then the working presumption is DIO sees the local community as a financial and legal liability?

So to help DIO show there is a financial return on recreational access TAG have a simple proposal.

TAG will pay for everyone’s access and hand over the cash to make everything right and proper.

The cost?

TAG are suggesting the rate be fixed in perpetuity at just £1 per year.

This token gesture covers the entire community and helps everyone fit into the money talks model of access DIO seem to be endorsing.

TAG will see if the lands can be booked for 12 months on that basis, but we won’t hold our breath.

However, we will be raising the issue of double standards and DIO’s behaviour with our local MPs. We would urge you to do likewise and the usual WriteToThem link makes the process simple and straightforward.

Trails and Wear

Human activity changes the world around us and it should come as no surprise mountain biking has an impact on the planet.

One day the army might want their land back…mud carried off the land is a microcosm of erosion

The good news is comparative studies put mountain biking in the light touch category. Thats not to say others are bad, it’s just we tend to ride in single file and leave narrow tracks. There are a few studies available for download, including this one.

One significant factor is the soil and terrain. Our blessing of light sandy soils equals excellent drainage and year-round riding or walking on the military lands. Try going for a walk or ride on chalk or clay after heavy rain and a swift lesson in geology will be delivered in the form of sticky, heavy mud clinging to your boots or bike. And it won’t wash off in a hurry.

DIO may resent casual recreational access but the real irritation isn’t Section 2 of the byelaws, it’s the underlying geology that rinses clean by just whispering “hosepipe” at the end of a ride. Given the choice who wouldn’t want to go for a winter walk or ride on well drained terrain?

Erosion – But How Much?

But for all the positives of MTB we will have witnessed a trail that is changing by erosion. Rainfall patterns are changing too and short, heavy downpours will run off faster and use gullies to drain…taking with it loose soil. The steeper the slope and straighter trail the greater the runoff and erosion.

Beacon Hill has been subject to erosion. We fully expect DIO to hold up trail erosion as a good reason to ban every cyclist on every trail…and their track record of using rational evidence to set policy will present a compelling but mostly false narrative leaving the decision makers with a view that Caesars Camp will cease to exist as a hill all thanks to MTB if nothing is done.

So what could we do to counter any emotive or egocentric policy setting?

Here at TAG we always fall back on evidence…and there are ways and means of precisely measuring changes caused by erosion with precise surveying tools (thank you to our friends at One Point Basingstoke), a decent camera or drone and some very clever software.

The technique is called photogrammetry and its used for everything from preserving evidence at serious road collisions to documenting shipwrecks.

So we have selected a couple of trails and scanned them in 3D. Click on the link to take a look:

In 3~6 months we can repeat the process and measure the differences. Early results have hinted at some erosion on one trail but its volume is measured as less than a half a wheel barrow load over 6 months. A small group of riders who care (and who don’t?) would have the trail restored in an hour…

This approach will deliver hard evidence that can then be used for two things:

  • Counter any subjective reasoning proposed by DIO to ban mountain biking
  • Tell us how fast the trails are wearing and plan to repair or divert as required.

Objective evidence is one of the principles of Standards in Public Life. It goes without saying we are more than happy to discuss using the best evidence and mitigation of trail damage with DIO, should they choose to engage.

Causing Harm/Closing Trails

There are a couple of trails that are causing concern and our riding is damaging some precious prehistoric remains.

In July 2021 DIO SE received a report entitled “Scheduled Monument Quinquennial Condition Assessment Surveys, Aldershot Training Area, Hampshire”.

For a 15 page report it mentions mountain biking or cycling no fewer than 17 times, and its not always positive. The main concerns over trail damage are occurring on some of the archeology at Caesars Camp, and we do agree there are some changes needed.

At this point we must point out a few things:

  • Its highly likely public money was spent on this report
  • Lt Col Bishop (Commanding Officer) and staff are likely to have sight of the report
  • It took a Freedom of Information request confirm the report’s existence
  • It took a second request to be provided with a copy

At no point in the 6 months between publication and the FOI request has DIO approached TAG to discuss any concerns regarding MTB damage.

We can draw our own conclusions as to why DIO have sat on the report and continued to bear witness to trail damage. Maybe it’s because one area where walkers and cyclists are blamed for damage is exactly the same area where TSMs like to drive their pickups?

The report author didn’t witness a TSM on patrol, but we have some photos showing vehicle tracks damaging the monument, if needed.

If DIO had raised the report with TAG we could have worked together last year to take action to close the trails and prevent more damage. Three trails that cross the ditch and bank are causing erosion to the 2500 year old fort and to prevent damage all we need do is choose not to ride these short sections of trail.

The vegetation will recover and help stabilise the soil. This will prevent further erosion and limit additional damage.

The green area represents the scheduled monument of Caesars Camp. The red trails show the locations of the trails causing harm. All are causing erosion and we need to let the vegetation recover to protect the 2500 year old fort

So this blog post really is an appeal to everyone asking that we individually and collectively stop riding over the ditch and bank of the Iron Age fort at Caesars Camp. It’s a precious piece of our cultural heritage protected by law (its scheduled by English Heritage) and we can do the responsible thing by applying “Do no harm” principles as much as possible.

What we cannot and must not do is repeat DIO’s “do nothing and watch them fail” approach as this hands good reason to anyone who wants to ban MTB to call for exactly that.

In total the trails doing the harm are a mere 327 metres in length. When compared to what else is available in the area – a whopping 109.88 kms for Long Valley and Caesars Camp combined – then its not a major loss.

We have prepared an overview of the trails:

Tracks and trails at Long Valley and Caesars Camp

Update 13th February – a ride yesterday added another 10kms of trails – total distance is now 118.9kms for both areas.

It’s not quite complete but a very good guide as to what is there. You can download a copy here:

TAG are quietly confident the local community cares about the lands. No one is setting out to deliberately cause harm, but once known and identified we can all do the right thing and the thing right and ride elsewhere letting Caesars Camp ditch and bank heal.