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.

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”.