Wharncliffe woods, an iconic riding spot near Sheffield, has had trails flattened by the Forestry Commission, despite a petition that gathered over 24,000 signatures being launched to save them.
The unauthorised trails had been a bone of contention between the Forestry Commission (FC), who manages the land, and the diggers, who had been asked not to build on the site previously. The trails had been flattened and rebuilt around three years ago, but the area was reportedly due for thinning, which prompted the latest issues.
The main issues with the trails cited by the FC were that the trail features were inappropriate and could present a danger to inexperienced riders, the perceived eyesore by other user groups and the location, which is in an area of Ancient Woodland.
However, local advocacy groups and representatives of the diggers had hoped to be able to move forward constructively and maintain existing the trails with some alterations, but it seems the FC was unwilling to do so.
We spoke to their representative at the time of the initial petition and received this reply: "The area in question is one where riders have for many years been asked to avoid building. Indeed, we removed trails and features from this area three years ago and offered the builders an alternative site. Unfortunately, our offer fell on deaf ears and trail building continued.
"Furthermore, the trails have been constructed within woodland that is being restored to benefit wildlife. The work that has been carried out takes no account of the natural environment. Not only has it destroyed an area of Ancient Woodland, but it has damaged trees by undercutting their roots, piling soil up against them, and has obliterated natural ground flora of bluebells and other plants."
The latter part of that statement has caused some dispute with those familiar with the area, as it is a Plantation on Ancient Woodland Site (PAWS), a monoculture plantation of upland tree species (such as pine) that happens to be on a site that's been continuously wooded since AD1600 or earlier, rather than containing the greater biodiversity of a site covered in native species that a true Ancient Woodland might suggest.
As a rule, native species such as bluebells struggle to survive in the acidic soil of a plantation, which has led to the accusation by some that the FC is simply using this reason as a smokescreen to remove trails they had an issue with.
When questioned on this point, the FC replied: "Across the country we strongly recommend long-term plans restore PAWS sites to native species. This can take many years, perhaps decades, as part of the overall planned forestry activities that could include thinning. Thinning involves removing some trees to give space for others to grow and each thinning will be years apart."
As the images show, the heavy machine work to remove the trails seems to have done a significant amount of damage to the surrounding area, which is somewhat at odds with the FC's stated aims in removing the trails.
When asked for comment, Kieran Foster, Cycling UK’s off-road policy advisor, said: “Without being involved in the Wharncliffe woods, it’s not possible for us to comment on the specifics of this case. Cycling UK believes the Forestry Commission’s existing Wild Trail Management Guidelines sets out a good balance to manage both access and nature conservation.
“As with all things, there has to be some give and take on both sides. Unfortunately, there’s a frequent pattern where we see a minority of unauthorised trail builders taking things too far, which forces the landowner to intervene.
“Often landowners are working within constraints that aren’t obvious to the riders, which is why Cycling UK believes dialogue is always the way forward."
Ride Sheffield, a local advocacy group that had been involved in attempts to mediate between the FC and the trail builders, had this to say: "We were disappointed to see that the Forestry Commission had gone ahead with the demolition of the Wharncouver trail in Wharncliffe Woods earlier this week.
"We have been proud to support the fantastic campaign that the trail builders have run to try and save their trails and believed that a sensible chance compromise could have been reached.
"We fully understand the FC’s concerned over liability and other matters and feel much of this could have been overcome through constructive dialogue.
"There is a meeting planned between The Builders, FC and ourselves and we hope this can be the start of improved relations, more great trails and an even brighter future for mountain biking in Wharncliffe."
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