Ride Bristol’s take on things
We get asked A LOT about what is going on in Leigh Woods and hear many opinions on what should and could be done in regard to the trails. There are three organisations who hold sway over what happens there:
- The National Trust,
- Forestry England
- Natural England.
Ride Bristol has been talking to the latter two, to try and understand the situation better. This post covers all the big questions based on our conversations with them. We have our opinions as I’m sure you do, but here we will stick to the facts as we understand them.
Who manages Leigh Woods?
Part of Leigh Woods is managed by Forestry England, and part is managed by The National Trust. Natural England is a non-departmental public body that has influence over the management of Leigh Woods, particularly the area classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
What areas of Leigh Woods can walkers and riders access?
The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW Act) normally gives a public right of access to land mapped as ‘open country’ (mountain, moor, heath and down) or registered common land. Access to Leigh Woods is covered by this legislation. Unfortunately for riders the right to roam freely under the CROW Act only applies to those on foot.
The only officially sanctioned off-road cycling trail in Leigh Woods is “Yer Tiz”, along with its short sections of ‘skill’ trails.
Forestry England allows cycling on most hard surfaced tracks at Leigh Woods including the waymarked trails which are for shared use.
What about the unofficial/natural/off-piste trails?
This is a collection of unsurfaced trails that has grown organically over time and been enjoyed by many riders. (Some quote around 20 years, but we expect it goes back a fair bit further than this!)
The network is vast and includes flatter sections towards the top and steeper trails down into the gorge. Walkers and riders use some, others are only used by mountain bikers. Trails can be found in the areas managed by both Forestry England (FE) and The National Trust, often cutting across the two.
It’s important to understand that although these trails have existed under the radar for many years, none have ever been officially sanctioned. Those who have ridden in Leigh Woods for a while will know that occasionally trails are blocked, trail features dug out and sometimes major forest operations take out large sections, as happened recently at Picnic Bench.
OK, they are unofficial, but why is that an issue for the landowners and Natural England?
The the two main issues are habitat damage and accident liability. Most of Leigh Woods is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It’s a specific categorisation of an area that has protected species or habitats. The wild trails are woven through the SSSI in a way that makes determining which sections are in and which are out, almost impossible.
The area covered by the SSSI is shown here: https://magic.defra.gov.uk/MagicMap.aspx?startTopic=Designations&activelayer=nnrIndex&query=Ref_CODE%3D%271006008%27
The reasons it has been specified as an SSSI are covered here:
Put simply, it’s the responsibility of The National Trust, Forestry England and Natural England to protect these areas. All three organisations view the creation of wild trails as a threat to this.
On top of that, as landowners, Forestry England and The National Trust can be held liable for any accidents that take place on their land and have a duty of care to keep everybody as safe as they can within the woodland. Fast moving riders descending trails that cross walking paths, large drops, timberwork and gap jumps are all a potential source of significant injury to both riders and walkers and consequently a concern. Elsewhere in the South West nasty collisions have resulted in injury and subsequent litigation.
Picnic Bench is such a wasteland now, how can it be considered to be a SSSI?
The Avon Gorge is a rare and special habitat that sustains plants that grow nowhere else. The Picnic Bench area is a SSSI and has the capacity to support this flora. Despite being planted with non-native conifers in the past, it’s likely that the soil contains many dormant seeds of native woodland species. In order to restore the site, it was necessary to remove the non-native conifer trees. Accessing and removing this timber required closure of the railway line. In order to remove the trees safely it was necessary to use heavy machinery, hence the reason Picnic Bench looks as it does.
The clear felling of the Picnic Bench area was just the first stage in what is a long term SSSI restoration plan. Forestry England will now need to further clear the ground in order to prepare it for future planting (update, this is what is taking place now January 2022). In time we will start to see the natural regeneration and planting of native species.
What is the wider story in Leigh Woods?
The growth in cycling during the pandemic is well documented. With travel options limited, Bristol riders have turned to their local trails. Social media and trail finder apps have added traffic to wild trails previously unknown to many. With more people focusing on Leigh Woods and the initial loss of the Picnic Bench trails, many new lines were built. For Forestry England, this brings very real concerns regarding damage to the SSSI and the risk of rider/walker collisions and conflict.
For Forestry England mapping and risk assessing the wild trail network is an ongoing process; nationally and regionally. This includes Leigh Woods. Broadly speaking the trails will be assessed based on the damage they will cause to the SSSI and risk they pose to the public. Once this is done it is likely that FE will direct resources to the areas and trails that pose the highest risk.
Ride Bristol, what can we do?
Like many riders we were under the impression that not all of Leigh Woods was a SSSI. We explored the option of having sanctioned wild trails in areas outside its boundaries, as a way to offer riding in the less sensitive parts of the woods.
Natural England made it very clear that. although the SSSI area was broken up, adjacent patches inside and outside the boundaries were indistinguishable from each other and of equal ecological value. As such, they’ve said they will not consider sanctioning any trails. At present Natural England seems unwavering in this view.
Ride Bristol recognises that steep, technical, natural trails are a very important component of the local riding scene for many more experienced riders and we are committed to working with landowners and riders to find a sustainable long term solution that offers riders of all levels, a variety of appropriate and challenging trails. We strongly believe that this is an essential part of the trail network that brings huge enjoyment and the accompanying health and well-being benefits to our community.
One of Ride Bristol’s primary objectives is to create a sustainable trail network around Bristol. So we will continue to talk to Forestry England, who we have always found supportive, (even if at present they can’t offer much good news). We believe that if we can find a common voice for the local riding community, it will ultimately be possible to successfully lobby for approved trails on FE land and elsewhere. Who knows even perhaps, in time, in Leigh Woods.
We will listen to the mountain biking community, collating views and common themes around what people think and what people want. We will shortly be releasing a survey to begin this work. We are working on ensuring that mountain bikers’ views and opinions are taken into serious consideration in any future recreation strategy in Leigh Woods.
Natural Trails – what can you do?
If you do decide to ride unauthorised trails we’d suggest thinking about the following:
- Know that designated rights of way are the only places you can legally ride and that you do not have a right to build trails. It may be that you oppose this position, and that’s fine, but as it stands this is the law. There are ongoing national campaigns set up to fight for improved countryside access.
- Avoid building new lines, if you see others doing so, try to educate them so they understand that building new lines can increase conflict and remove any future prospect of sanctioned trails.
- Avoid promoting unauthorised trails on social media, this brings more traffic, risk and damage, drawing further attention to the trail.
- Don’t log unauthorised trails on Strava, trail forks or similar. This also brings more traffic, risk and damage, drawing further attention to the trail.
- Take note of the trails you ride and consider how they might be viewed by the landowner. The more dangerous and damaging the trail is (think big features and high traffic) the more likely it will draw attention and be shut down.
- Ride respectfully of other forest users, high speed close passes, are intimidating. As they say at Ride Sheffield “be nice, say hi”.
- If someone is angry or upset by your riding, try to stop, be thoughtful and listen, you might be in the right, you might be in the wrong, they might be rude or unreasonable. However, taking the heat out of the situation, reduces the likelihood of complaints to the landowner reducing the pressure on them to close down wild trails.
For twenty years or more the unsanctioned trails in Leigh Woods have been a source of friction between riders, walkers and the landowners. Given all the factors noted in this document, it won’t be quick or easy, but with the support of the MTB community Ride Bristol can work to find a resolution. We will continue to talk to Forestry England. In part with a view to upgrading the ‘Yer Tiz’ trail and in pursuit of our broader objective to develop a sustainable network of challenging and varied trails around the city.
Perhaps you see things we don’t? If you can make a positive contribution to either this or our broader aspiration of building a sustainable trail network around our city, please get in touch.