Ride and Prejudice

This article comes with a health warning, please approach with caution. If you’re a conservationist or outdoor enthusiast of a nervous disposition, look away now. If you’re happy to have your preconceptions challenged, read on….

As preconceptions go, one of the most pernicious is that mountain bikers are the devil incarnate, a rebel horde invading the countryside with all the tact and diplomacy of the Visigoths. They trash trails, scatter walkers in their wake and terrorise wildlife. 

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. I was on Blackamoor SSSI the other day with Nabil Abbas, Reserve Manager for the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust. The Ride Sheffield Midweek Maintenance Crew had been busy a few days before maintaining a popular bridleway. It had been a challenge, creating a path that was suitable for all users, encouraging everyone to stick to it and ensuring it didn’t resemble something from an urban park.

We all have an effect….

I was therefore a bit nervous, a nervousness that turned out to be misplaced because Nabil was delighted with our efforts. We had achieved the desired result, a narrow path replaced a plethora of parallel tracks that would become muddy horrors in bad weather. 

To summarise, a group of mountain bikers had grafted for hours shifting aggregate and making sure that the result was suitable for all users when they could have been riding bikes. How are those preconceptions doing now?

What’s that you say? That it’s done out of self-interest? Really? I’ve also been involved when mountain bikers have planted trees to improve bio-diversity in moorland cloughs. Sphagnum planting has also been on the itinerary, a back-breaking day that was only fun in retrospect. Many mountain bikers feel as if giving something back to the places they love is a duty. Can the same be said of all users?

Now let’s assume that there are those who’d respond that it’s just as well they give back because they take so much from the environment. Where’s the proof? Mountain biking has for many years been the whipping boy of the great outdoors. Need someone to blame for pretty much any environmental destruction? Blame those adrenaline-fuelled loons on bikes. It’s been the longest summing-up in the longest trial the world has ever seen, with the counsel for the prosecution monopolising the proceedings. 

Well, here comes the counsel for the defence. As I said, where’s the proof that mountain bikes have a greater impact than anyone else? There have been studies into the impact of different users on rights of way but, as far as I can tell, the jury is still out. We all have an effect, but it’s difficult to determine who has the greatest overall. Best shot at explaining it? Walkers widen paths, bikers deepen them and horses can lead to poaching, (extreme muddiness). The General Manager of the Peak District National Trust appeared on Countryfile a few years ago and stated unequivocally that walkers, by virtue of their numbers, were the greatest source of erosion in the Peak District.

It’s a great place to ride, let’s look after it….

However, for many people, this debate is a red herring. The fact is we all have an effect and we should all do something to remedy it. I’d love to lead mixed groups to repair rights of way. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that once people get together, whatever their chosen pastime, they quickly realize they have more in common than divides them. Don’t make assumptions about people based on their chosen way of enjoying the great outdoors. The vast majority of mountain bikers love the place they ride and go out of their way to protect it.

Again, one of the most frequent charges leveled against bikers is that some of them will ride where they shouldn’t, on footpaths and desire lines. However, I can state with confidence that every mountain bike advocacy group in the country is encouraging responsible riding. We can’t wave a magic wand to make it happen because the mountain biking demographic is so diverse. We are appealing to people who have been outdoor folk all their lives and to others who have walked into Decathlon or Halfords, bought a mountain bike and know next to nothing about the fragile environment they are about to enter. We know that whatever we say, some riders will do their own thing. 

What we can do is play the long game. Let’s forget about legalities and think instead of impacts. Whatever your chosen pastime, surely the primary concern should be how much damage you’re going to cause. Walkers have a great tradition of heading out whatever the weather. I doff my helmet to their fortitude. However, numerous walking boots tramping along a peaty path in poor conditions can cause serious damage. A fell race held in spite of a torrential downpour will leave a mudbath in its wake. Once upon a time, the paths on Bleaklow were visible from space. The cost of repairing them has been immense. Open access is a great step forward, but do the multiplicity of desire lines it creates have an adverse effect on wildlife?

Tools need a bit of love….

My response to this kind of damage is not to vilify every walker as an eco-vandal but to urge greater awareness of the effect we all have. Choose your route carefully. Think of the wider impact. Be prepared to turn back. Most of all, accept that it’s not just mountain bikers who have an effect, we all do. 

Mountain bikers are also castigated by conservationists for their perceived impact on wildlife. The big debate is over the flushing effect – who creates the greatest disturbance over the widest area? Again, where is the proof that mountain bikers are the worst culprits? 

There has been a case where a proposed mountain bike trail would be fifty metres further away from open moorland than a well known and extremely popular walkers path. There were serious suggestions by ecologists that even though it was further away, it would have a greater effect on wildlife. Is it any wonder, given such an illogical conclusion, that mountain bikers despair of being treated in an even-handed fashion?

There is good evidence that recreational users who stick rigidly to a linear path have much less effect than those who wander off the trail. In The effect of recreational disturbance on an upland breeding bird, the Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria by Finney, Yalden and Pearce-Higgins, a study of the Pennine way found that since resurfacing, users were less likely to stray from the path and that birds were therefore nesting in closer proximity. Therefore it’s difficult to conclude that mountain bikers who stick unerringly to the trail have any greater effect on wildlife. 

Let’s compare mountain bikers to other user groups. A bike moving through at some speed is adjacent to a nest for seconds. Bikers are usually concentrating so hard on staying upright that they are all but silent. A large group of slow moving walkers, chatting, is adjacent to wildlife for longer and make more noise. Studies have indicated that bird response to recreational users is broadly similar apart from the tendency for walkers to leave the path.  Again, I’m not suggesting that walkers should be banned from nature reserves, I’m just trying to question some of the assumptions that are made.

Dog walkers, particularly professionals leading a large pack, will create disturbance in all directions. In the North Kent Bird Disturbance Report 2012, dog walking, particularly off-lead, was cited as the main cause of bird disturbance. That conclusion has also been central to a number of other studies.

Mountain bikes also have a positive effect. Kids who would rather set fire to their smart phones than take a walk in a national park will ride a bike. It’s cool, it’s fun and a gateway to greater understanding of the natural world. I’ve always been a naturalist but my love of climbing and mountain biking has brought me to an ever greater understanding of the environment I enjoy. In the December 2018 issue of Environmental Scientist, Pippa Langford argues persuasively that, with the correct protection measures in place, access to the countryside is crucial both to conservation and the health of the nation. 

All I’d ask of the conservation and outdoor community is that they look very carefully at the assumptions they make. We all need to examine the impact we have and make logical decisions that will protect the place we love. Pick your route carefully, chat to everyone you pass, don’t assume that walkers are grumpy, horse riders haughty and mountain bikers mentally deranged. We’re all out there having fun in a place we love, let’s celebrate that.