What happened at the Wild Trails webinar?

The Institute of Chartered Foresters ‘Wild Trails webinar’ was held on July 6th. With delegates representing land managers across the UK, it was a great opportunity for Peak District MTB to provide a mountain biking perspective. Despite some challenging questions raised over the impact of wild trails, the theme was one of positive engagement between land managers and mountain bikers.

What are Wild Trails? In the context of this webinar they are purpose-built but unsanctioned and ‘unofficial’ trails, often built in woodland and forestry plantations, and usually without permission. Trails that are built for mountain bikers by mountain bikers. 

‘Wild trails’ have been built for years, but they are seeing increasingly more MTB traffic and as a result there’s a growing concern that this activity can no longer remain under-the-radar. 

“We worked hard to put together a programme that would allow multiple points of view to be heard, from forest managers and health and safety consultants to the mountain bikers who use the trails and academic researchers…Our speakers delivered a massive amount of information in the 2-hour session and provided insight into many areas of bike trail establishment and management that delegates may not have been previously aware of.” – Institute of Chartered Foresters

For us, Dan Noble and Chris Maloney made the case for mountain bikers, and Jim Cherrington shared his findings on riders’ relationship to the outdoors; but not before representations were made by a range of people from throughout the UK.

John Dougan – Regional Manager for the South Region and Forestry and Land Scotland – acted as chair, introducing delegates representing Health and Safety, biosecurity, forestry, recreation advisors and of course Peak District MTB.

Presenting first, Longleat Head Forester Jim McConkie detailed how their 500,000 visitors to the forest each year (of which 50,000 are cyclists) had an impact. Longleat is promoted as ‘bike-friendly’ since it provides an award-winning bike park and two national SUSTRANS routes, but there are very few public rights of way. 36km of ‘wild trails’ have been identified on Strava which Jim claimed equated to 2.16 hectares of land that could not be forested. Key concerns for Jim were damage to Scheduled Ancient Monuments (as far back as 2011) and “large scale ramp locations”.

The Strava angle

David Rickwood from Devon Woodland Trust was next up, once more using Strava data to highlight the prevalence of wild trails on the land they manage. David’s concerns were about an increasing matrix of trails creating more “disturbance zones” that force wildlife into ever smaller “habitat niches”. David acknowledged that cyclists visiting the area soon ran out of ‘legitimate’ trails to ride and instead turned to Strava and Trailforks to find new trails. 

The use of Strava by land managers to assess the usage by mountain bikers was a recurring theme from many presenters. Love it or hate it, Strava is a go-to tool for land managers to get usage data. Dan named Strava in the Peak District MTB presentation too, highlighting the growing trend of mountain bikers getting their trail info online from Strava, Trailforks, Komoot, YouTube, Facebook, Viewranger and countless other online resources. 

Influence and dialogue

We highlighted that influencing is more effective than policing, not just within Peak District MTB’s followers, but with the MTB celebrities such as Josh Bryceland and Tommy C Hype recognising the impact of the growth in popularity of wild trails. Check out their videos Trash Rat 2020 and The Future of the Channel?!.

Peak District MTB committee member Chris made a case for honest, fact based dialogue between land managers and local MTB groups, highlighting how the successful relationships we’ve built with Severn Trent Water, Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, the Peak District National Park Authority and others are leading to extensive trail maintenance programs and opening up of new permissive trails. Chris highlighted the need for difficult conversations on both sides, and challenged the preconceptions surrounding mountain bikers – including our suggested ignorance of ecology and the risk of liability. 

British Cycling recently launched their Plan for mountain bike gravity 2021 and beyond, recognising the talent the UK has for gravity-based mountain biking, but also the lack of places to ride. Their research identified that almost a quarter of MTB gravity riders have no access to appropriate dedicated facilities.

Although British Cycling were not at this event, it’s worth reading their plans since they also recognise the importance of engagement: “We need to work more closely with land owners, local groups and other stakeholders to ensure that the riders of tomorrow have safe and accessible places to hone their craft”

What do Wild Trails offer?

We feel that ‘wild trails’ offer challenge and remoteness from other outdoor users, and are purpose-built by mountain bikers for mountain bikers – these are things the existing rights of way network struggles to provide. This led neatly into Peak District MTB committee member and Sheffield Hallam University researcher Jim Cherrington’s presentation.

It was a real treat to have Jim present the motivations for trail builders. Jim’s research demonstrated that trail builders developed an intimate understanding of the landscape and crave a deeper connection with the environment. Some felt they had a more authentic connection to the landscape than the land owners. 

Forest biosecurity

Next up was April Armstrong from Forest Research who discussed how to minimise the risk of introducing or spreading pests and diseases. This can impact mountain bikers since it can result in trail closures.  April was reassured by our efforts to spread information about the importance of such closures, again highlighting the value of local MTB advocacy groups. 

The importance of engagement

The final three presenters all recognised that the growth in mountain biking could not be ignored and that engagement was important. 

John Ireland from Forestry and Land Scotland advised that provision for areas to build trails should be balanced with strict “no building” areas, and that mountain bikers should expect trails to be destroyed if in those ‘out of bounds’ areas. John raised concerns that access rights will be lost if we cannot collectively engage to solve the problem of wild trails. He recognises that engagement with mountain bikers to create trails is not easy and is resource hungry, but it is possible to build a trusting and respectful relationship. Speaking on the back of extensive experience in supporting progressive plans in the Tweed Valley and elsewhere, John’s view was particularly interesting.

“I must admit I was surprised at how well the discussion went. I was expecting an industry response that paints MTB as anti-social behaviour rather than acknowledge the issue is much more nuanced and deep rooted than something that can easily be overcome by sending in a digger and leaving some signs around explaining why the trail was removed.” – Neil Barnes, Forestry England.

Chris Scott from Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland admitted they had their “head in the sand” that wild trails were a problem. It’s only relatively recently that Northern Ireland created dedicated and legitimate MTB trail centres, and the perceived problems of ‘wild trails’ were ignored. Chris summarised the situation very neatly, pointing out that the problems we were all discussing are not unique, ignoring it does not work, and that respect and engagement were key. Chris also made an important point that mountain bikers are not the only users who have an impact. 

Risk and liability

Finally David Liddy from Natural Resources Wales talked about their approach to risk. The more remote and undeveloped the land, the less management intervention – such as warning signs – is required. The flip side is that more skill, self-reliance and personal responsibility is required the less developed the land is; a sensible approach that enables trail builders to create wild trails where they do not impact others or cross existing trail network. Poor quality ‘northshore’  woodwork is not tolerated though!

The question of risk and liability cropped up more than once and is clearly a concern to land managers. There are no easy answers to this problem, but delegates such as John Ireland provided some practical advice to defend against civil claims. In civil claims the standard of proof is “balance of probabilities” – land managers need to show they have applied satisfactory ‘duty of care’. The other recurring theme was the use of Strava for building data-driven models of land usage that can be hard to argue with.  

Was it a good event?

Graham Clark – Active Outdoors Assistant Consultant and Cycling Lead at the National Trust – said of the event:

“The webinar was a good opportunity for large land managers to share how they are managing wild and unauthorised access to their spaces. The usual worries were voiced by some, and the pathogen spread presentation was a different take on the usual issues aimed at riders. However, Peak District MTB representatives presented advocacy and MTB riders in a very good light, which could then be seen in examples given by both Dave Liddy (Natural Resources Wales) and John Ireland (Forestry and Land Scotland). 

“Moving forward British Cycling is working with Forestry England, Natural Resources Wales, Forestry and Land Scotland, and the National Trust to produce a common ‘best practice’ guide for land managers so that it is much easier for the MTB community to connect with the relevant landowner and have a consistent approach to any wild or unauthorised trails.”

This event only scratched the surface of the issues – and solutions – relating to wild trails. Despite some tough challenges identified by some of the delegates, we came away from this webinar feeling there was an overall willingness to engage with mountain bikers. We are delighted we had the opportunity to demonstrate that we’re a responsible group who are willing to engage.

“We were delighted with the engagement and attendance at our recent Wild Bike Trails webinar – our sincere thanks go to all the speakers who gave their time to get involved…It was fantastic to see delegates interacting with each other on the key issues during the event, and we hope that the session provides a platform for increased collaboration in this area between both individuals and organisations” – Institute of Chartered Foresters.

We’re already looking forward to the next one…

Don’t forget to check out our well-regarded article Unsanctioned MTB trails- how to lose friends and alienate land managers for more thoughts on Wild Trails.


8 July 2021