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”.

Hi everyone,

As you may be aware 6 months ago TAG wrote a position paper setting out what we saw as the potential management options for MTBing on MoD land around Aldershot. We did this primarily to set our cards out on the table and to better understand MoD’s official position.

We have now had a response from MoD which is attached to the bottom of this post. As you will see, whilst it is not a wholly negative response, it does not significantly move the discussion towards sustainable use of MoD land by MTBers.

So, what are the next steps for TAG – there are three areas we intend to pursue:

  • Continue to be available to the MoD if and when they decide they wish to engage with the MTB users.
  • Provide information to MTBers of any news or information that will encourage sustainable use of the land, for example by promoting the Code of Conduct
  • Act as a key lobby group when the Aldershot Military Lands Byelaw review is undertaken to formally provide submissions advocating legal recognition of cyclist use of the land beyond the current restriction to byeways and made up roads.

Whilst TAG appreciates this isn’t great news, we will continue to pursue the above areas with vigour. We would of course welcome any feedback from MTBers on the position paper and MOD’s response.

Thank you for your support,

TAG

Mountain Biking on the Aldershot Military Land

DIO Response to TAG Paper