Is it a perception thing?

Why mountain bikers need to think beyond access and sustainability, and more about restoration.

More than a means to an end.

Over the last 20 years, mountain biking (mtb) has entered the public conscience as a socially acceptable hobby. From being a fringe movement with a counter-culture feel to it, mtb has now grown to the point where on any Sunday at Glentress, you’ll see 500 families making use of the forest. This from-the-ground-up development has led to it becoming a significant contributor to the Scottish Economy

 

Historically, the main challenge facing mtb riders was land access. Largely, it still is. It is undoubtedly true that England’s access laws lag behind our neighbors in Scotland and our European brethren in Scandinavia.  This was touched upon in the Glover report, and advocacy groups such as Cycling UK and Open MTB have been working hard to address this.

To conflate issues, we are now in the grip of a pandemic, where the need for free, equitable access to space has been highlighted and the effects of the climate crises are starting to ferment at an alarming pace. Our urban environments aren’t fit for a changing world. Our rural areas are often broken and denuded ecosystems, bereft of clean water, soil, and habitats. 

 

With this in mind, we must begin to examine our relationship with the natural world. 

Land access is still the driving message for mountain bikers, but we must look outwards and expand our scope - our bio diversity is collapsing, and gaining better land access without landscape restoration won’t help our problems or meet our aims in the long run. 

We know that natural mtb trails cause very little damage to habitat and eco-systems, but the prevailing, and outdated view is often otherwise. Little research is available but this finding helps put us on an even keel with other user groups "downhill effects of mountain bikes, where they have their greatest erosive potential, are not greater relative to those of other activities (e.g., walking)" (Cessford, 1995)

Mountain bikers haven't caused climate crises or outdated access laws, but we can start to help change that perception and help mitigate the climate events that are hurtling towards us. In fact, by doing the latter we can help the former. 

What does that all mean?

As we continue to call for increased land access, we should asses the type of land we benefit from. Is it better for mtb riders to stay in the confines of industrial Sitka Spruce forests? Or can we too use the uplands in ways that other user groups such as walkers, horse riders and fell runners do? Does trail creation equate to land access, or are they different things? 

These are all pertinent questions.

Where we seek access into “wilder” spaces, then we should actively participate in caring for, protecting, or restoring that landscape.  It could be argued that our recreation provides a catalyst for restoration to become economically viable. 

This isn’t a new concept. 

 

The BMC, a leading light when it comes to gaining access and activating their users to help mitigate the climate crises, have been educating their members on the benefits of planting Sphagnum moss, a wonderfully absorbent natural sponge that helps ensure our peat bogs can continue to sequester carbon and alleviate flooding.  

Where mtb is concerned, the problem is such: If we don’t restore our landscapes, the benefits of access will be drowned out by the effects of climate change.

One game-changer in shifting the perception of mtb, and adopting an amazing, community-led holistic approach is Ride Sheffield. The organisation has quietly grown into a progressive advoacy group, as John Horscroft outlined to me 

 

"Both Henry Norman, who formed Ride Sheffield, and I were keen climbers and therefore, inevitably, heavily influenced by the great work the BMC has done over the years. Becoming a valued member of the outdoor community is fundamental to gaining influence. Ride Sheffield’s initial aim was to become a useful ally to land managers, local authorities, conservation bodies, wildlife trusts and the Peak District National Park. We aimed to provide as much help to them as possible, rustling up volunteers not only to maintain trails but also to plant trees and sphagnum moss. The payback was almost immediate. A greater understanding of the extraordinary ecosystem we rode in was mirrored by more dialogue about maintaining trails in a sustainable but multi-disciplinary-friendly fashion. New bridleways also began to appear. Yet that was just the start. Building a crowd-funded trail and proving that it could be a benefit not just to riders but to local businesses was ground-breaking. We have an exceptional rapport with local land-managers, who understand how little mountain biking affects flora and fauna yet encourages a new generation to engage with the great outdoors. There’s more to do, more volunteers to encourage, more sphagnum to plant but, ten years in, we feel that we’ve learned a lot and improved the image of mountain bikers. A great combination" 

Have you seen the Californian wildfires? Ard Rock and Malvern cancellations?  The Maritime Alp trail destruction? Increased drought? Access to land on its own won’t stop these climate events - climate events that also threaten the very trails we enjoy to ride. 

Access with land and ecological restoration can help in its own small, but important way. 

So how do we do it?

Ecological restoration is a term thrown around widely in the press but it’s not clear how many people actually know what it means. The same can be said for eco-system services, natural capital and the hydrological system. 

The simplest way of putting it is that the natural systems that we depend upon for survival are threatened. The state of our land - land we sometimes think is natural but is not - is one of depletion. 

An example of what this means in every day life is river health. 

All of our water is abstracted from rivers (too much), reservoirs (we probably need more) and at times, aquifers (leave them alone).  An increase in hot spells, such as the one we had in March, will cause river levels to drop.  These dangerous hot spells will happen more frequently over the coming years. 

Where an excess of nutrients (think animal faeces, organic matter from ploughed fields, pesticides, algae, decaying plants) are in the river, causing damage already, a drop in water flow will cause the nutrient percentage to increase. 

You know these green rivers you don’t want to drink from? Expect to see more of that in the future. 

This affects you by raising your water bills as more treatments are required to make it drinkable, or even worse, meaning when you turn the tap on, water might not be available due to drought. This is a very real threat in England. 

Less water absorption into soils also increases fire risk in moorland areas and conversely increases flood-risk in lowland areas. And it damages our soil’s organic matter, encouraging overuse of imported fertilisers, which run off into our rivers. And nutrient-rich rivers can stop our fish from spawning. And eroded soils damage our ability to grow food.

As you can see, these chains, or rather feedback loops, can get very complicated, very quickly for your average person.  

Most of us have busy lives and inevitably climate crisis mitigation is overwhelmingly hard - how on earth does an individual tackle it if Governments and mega-polluting corporations aren't willing to try?

So how do we do it?

Mountain biking and cycling can help restore these landscapes and eco-systems by helping finance, and by taking direct action, to stimulate ecological restoration. 

 

An example would be land that is intensely farmed and close to a river. This can amplify the river health and flooding problems mentioned earlier. 

Currently, the economics of farming push farmers into intensification. Bad policy, public disconnect with the good that farmers do and the odd rogue, bad-actor farmer have all contributed to this.  

Diversifying what rural landscapes do economically might help alleviate this situation. We could then potentially work with landowners and farmers to restore landscapes to lush pasture (using ruminants), clover meadows, forest or heathland and rivers could be protected, carbon-sequestering topsoil could be rebuilt and public access could be promoted.

Far from being a non-functional landscape, it would very much be functioning, albeit in a different way. The same principle can be applied to all land types that are marginal or denuded. 

The proposed ELMS subsidy scheme goes some way to making this a realistic goal, as does what farms like Ingram Valley and College Valley are doing on the ground. When you speak to a lot of farmers, they really know their stuff but the economics are a stymying factor. 

If, as mountain bikers, we could follow the BMC’s lead and partake in tree planting days, montane scrub restoration, help make regenerative agriculture financially viable, heather planting - or whatever is appropriate for that land - we could also make a very strong case for getting access to land, based around more than just a social equity level. We are becoming part of a transformational agricultural system. 

We would be combining social benefits, environmental benefits, and economic benefits in one move. 

The case for projects like this has often unraveled due to economics and scope complexity. We should also ensure they are driven by communities and are not top-down investment heavy vanity projects.

But we now understand that to ignore nature is to jeopardize our economy and live’s for the long term, and a wide scope should not scare us. 

Looking beyond the thrill of the ride and assessing how we can benefit the environment, rather than treat it is as just a playground, we can not only help protect and increase our access, we can help protect the very world that we rely on for our health, and our fun.  That's exciting. 

What can we do?

Accept that where trails are created for us through labour, we should help maintain them, and pay landowners (in-kind or with cash) for the effort allowing us more than access. Everyone wins, right? 

Partake in landscape restoration days - be that tree planting, heather planting, marram grass, river clean-ups - whatever it is - roll up your sleeves and help protect the planet, and allow trails to be built. It’s good craic, and you’ll get to see something special taking shape within 15 years. 

Play the long game: Ensure that we understand our environments and strive to protect them. We might get a short term benefit from a Sitka Spruce plantation built on Blanket Peat Bog, but in the bigger picture we know we should restore that area to Blanket Peat Bog. We’ll lose some trails, but in the process, we’ll be protecting our landscapes for the long term, and that will create opportunities for us, and our kids to ride bikes. 

Respect nature: Should we build a trail over badger sets? Should we disturb ground-nesting birds for the sake of a trail? The answer is no, but there is no “one glove fits all” solution. If in doubt, seek advice and work with those in your group who have knowledge of local habitats and the environment. You’ll be surprised at the cross-section of people who ride bikes. 

Understand that bikes are just one part of the system. Farmers produce food, which we need. They work hard and there are many, many great farmers who are looking to balance making a living, enhancing the environment and putting food on our plates. Personally, I’ve found farmers to be some of the best storytellers I’ve ever met and loved hearing their point of view. And remember it’s fine to disagree with each other, but be nice about it - there's always common ground to be found. 

Explain the concept to landowners, work with them. Most landowners are willing to engage, but agricultural land management is complex.  If you can demonstrate the gain in natural capital, income benefits and responsible public access then there are government funding schemes that farmers and landowners can tap into - ticking the social, environmental and economic boxes. If you want to know more about that, get in touch. 

Form a trail association with social, environmental and economic strategies all sat alongside each other, on equal standing. 

Summing up

 

As cyclists we are often directly interacting with nature. Who’s ride isn’t brightened by seeing a Pergrine, Red Squirrel or Pine Martin? This year I saw a Hen Harrier for the first time, and the combination of a great trail, remote location and a magnificent raptor is something I won’t forget. 

We have an opportunity to work with landowners to not only create opportunities to diversify our economies but also restore and protect our landscapes. In the long run, this will enhance our biking experience and save us all money in our everyday lives. 

We’ll be updating you on how this concept develops over the next 6 months as we work with our regional partners.

 

Tommy Wilkinson is the Managing Director of DWACO and an Environmental Science student. His family farmed Uswayford, a remote upland farm in Northumberland for 30 years. 

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