- November 2021, following press reports of proposed fines, a villager saddened to think that cyclists were put in the same category as fire-starters and litter-louts
- December 2021, Ian Thew gave a Commoner’s and conservation perspective
- February 2022, cyclists raise some specific questions
- March 2022, I asked the Verderers to answer those questions.
November 2021: Cycling in the Forest
The Verderers are pushing for introduction of £100 fixed penalty notices for anti-social behaviour, according to a recent article in the Lymington Times. This targets “off-road cyclists, owners of out-of-control dogs and people using barbecues”. Parking on verges and electric bikes would be prohibited.
It saddens me when cyclists are bundled this way with fly tippers, litter louts and fire-starters. The vast majority of bikers in the Forest love this habitat and do everything possible to keep an eye out for the animals, things that need addressing or anyone that may cause a threat to the peace and tranquillity of this amazing area.
The enjoyment and health benefits of cycling through the Forest also bring a vast amount of business and revenue, and not just in the summer months. That article also targets electric bikes as a problem; in fact they are slower than non-electric in the UK. Before making assumptions we need to think about what this innovation has meant to elderly and handicapped people looking to improve their physical and mental health, and the implications of exclusions for some people.
Before any such Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) are considered by forestry committees and government I feel local views should be heard by the people living and paying their taxes in this area.
How many times have we seen overnight camping and fires, rubbish left by visitors? Any PSPO should aim at the damage they cause, giving the authorities power to take details and fine where appropriate and to move inappropriate visitors on. In my opinion, seeking out bikers as somehow destructive is unhelpful and simply not true.
My wife has hacked her Forest pony across the Forest for most of her life and we both also enjoy days together on horse and bike at the same time. My wife’s Forest Pony, ‘Frosty’ loves following me on my bike. There is a lot more that can be done to link up the bridle ways of the new Forest. At the moment there are just many bridle ways that actually don’t go anywhere other than within a specific enclosure.
Rather than looking to hide our precious forest and impose restrictions we should be looking to promote and improve people’s enjoyment when walking or cycling through this ancient woodland.
December 2021: From the Inclosure
Recent incidents, conversations and letters have prompted me to resurrect the keyboard to try and explain the thorny question of the proposed Public Space Protection Order and cycling on the New Forest. Before I go any further let me assure you the majority of cyclists come and enjoy this beautiful place without giving cause for concern, but if you think this applies to all cyclists then you are living in Cloud Cuckoo Land. Unfortunately the 144 square miles of Crown land which is bounded by the Perambulation of the New Forest sits within the New Forest National Park but it is not, as some might like to assume, a theme park. It is an area of land whose unique landscape supports many endangered species of flora and fauna. It is so important that it has been designated as an international RAMSAR site, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, A Special Protection Area and a Special Area of Conservation.
The miles of gravelled tracks that criss-cross the New Forest are not bridleways nor are they cycle tracks, they have been built for the management of the Forest and for the extraction of its end-product i.e. timber. In order to protect this rare place and at the same time allow the general populace to enjoy it, Forestry England have designated some 100 miles of their gravelled roads as cycle routes. These have been carefully chosen to avoid damage or disturbance to sensitive areas but they are not, however, for the exclusive use of cyclists. Walkers, horse riders, carriage drivers and permitted vehicle use them too.
Whilst the vast majority of cyclists are content to stay on these tracks there is, I’m sorry to say, a growing genre of anarchistic individuals who choose to disregard the signage and ride across areas where they risk harming and disrupting rare and endangered species. Be under no illusion these are not an odd one or two, we encounter them frequently and on a daily basis. Now, before you jump up and down and say I’m talking rubbish, I challenge you to walk down any grass ride or across the open Forest and I’ll guarantee before long you’ll find either off-road cyclists or their tyre tracks. It’s this minority of cyclists who are the problem and it is these, along with the racers who show no respect for the Forest and the others who use it, and those who ride through the Inclosures at night, who should be targeted by the proposed Public Space Protection Order.
Electric bikes have also been the topic of much discussion and one needs to consider the Forest by-laws, one of which states there is a maximum speed limit on the New Forest of 20mph and 15mph when in an Inclosure. And whilst electric bikes in the UK are restricted to an assisted speed limit of 15.5 mph they can, by further pedalling, reach speeds of up to 28mph and illegal electric bikes which, apparently, are available can reach speeds of 50mph! Furthermore, the by-laws also state the only vehicle propelled by electric power which is permitted on the Forest is an invalid carriage! At the moment Forestry England seem to be turning a blind eye to the subject of electric bikes but I’m sure if the situation escalates then further action will become necessary.
Forestry England have a very difficult balancing act to perform in order to please everyone so why not just follow the by-laws and the signage and help them to preserve this beautiful part of England for future generations to enjoy.
February 2022: Cycling in the Forest (questions raised by cyclists)
Most areas have equal access rights for bicycles and horses, but within the Forest bikes are unfairly demonised. Surely 100kg of a cyclist rolling on rubber tyres cannot be worse for erosion and wildlife disturbance than 500kg of a horse and rider with metal shod hooves.
Why don’t cyclists stick to official tracks? Because they don’t join up. The marked tracks are excellent but simply lead from one car park to another. There isn’t a safe route from Burley to Brockenhurst. The official track ends at Holmsley tea rooms then it’s 1.5 miles on a dangerous road. The A35 underpass at Markway Hill is forbidden.
The authorities kindly allow cycling on designated tracks. There are no bridleways in the New Forest because for centuries access was available to all. Then in 1994 off-road cycling was restricted to 43 miles of designated track. There was little prior consultation and no appeal process.
We must protect the SSSI status. Agreed, but many of the restrictions make no sense. Coming from Fritham to Burley, there’s a clear gravel track down to Holly Hatch. Why is it forbidden? The track is used by off-road vehicles (typically 2 tons). It’s used by hikers, runners and dog walkers so it’s hard to see how a bike would affect wildlife. Cycling groups asked for this track to be opened but met with a flat refusal.
Meanwhile livestock numbers have nearly tripled in recent years. The average cow weighs 700kg and a herd moving during wet periods can cause far more damage than any bike. In the lower lying areas of the Forest cattle damage is far worse recently than I can remember in the past 30 years.
Electric bikes are a concern. There are scare stories about 50mph bikes. These are extremely rare and would occupy the same legal classification as petrol driven vehicles. Around Burley, e-bike riders are typically pensioners who leave their camper van behind when they explore the Forest. Electric assistance gives them confidence to cope with hills.
There is no doubt that some areas of the Forest are delicate and could not withstand an unrestricted free-for-all, but I feel that cyclists are being disproportionately blamed. A few concessions from the authorities towards better linked routes could help spread riders away from areas that become congested in good weather and would also encourage the so-called ‘anarchistic individuals’ to stick more closely to approved trails.
March 2022: Cycling in the Forest (Verderers responses)
Last month’s article raised some interesting questions. The Verderers have kindly responded as follows.
1. Who decides which paths are allowed for cycling? Is it the Verderers or Forestry England?
Forestry England is the body which gives permission for cycling on the Crown Lands. Forestry Commission England byelaw 6 prohibits the use of cycles on FE land. The Verderers’ consent is required for the waymarked cycle network which is permitted by FE.
2. Apparently, the restricted network of paths was determined in 1994. What changes have been made since then?
The network was significantly redesigned in the early years, principally to provide protection for vulnerable wildlife and tranquillity areas which were under threat. However, this is now many years ago and the Verderers do not have easily accessible records of the changes.
3. People are annoyed to see tyre marks in the wrong places, they worry about protecting the SSSI environment. Can you give one or two examples of places where there is evidence of bike tracks causing erosion which endangered the SSSI?
Quoting the Ecology Footprint report in 2020 (Recreation use of the New Forest SAC/ SPA/ Ramsar: impacts of recreation and potential mitigation approaches) …
“There is now a strong body of evidence showing how increasing levels of access can have negative impacts on wildlife. Visits to the natural environment have shown a significant increase in England as a result of the increase in population and a trend to visit more. The issues are particularly acute in southern England, where population density is highest. Issues are varied and include disturbance, increased fire risk, contamination and damage.”
The photo shows cycle damage to the footpath near Long Pond. Clearly this is already a wet area. Unfortunately, some cyclists seem to delight in aiming for such places! As the route progresses northwards across the Forest west of Burley, there are deep erosion areas.
4. Have off-road cyclists caused injury to people or livestock? For example, how many accidents were caused by off-road cyclists in the New Forest, in the last five years?
Such incidents are not reported to the Verderers so this information is not in our possession. Last year there were reportedly several serious accidents to horse-riders caused by off-road cyclists frightening horses.
One earlier and fatal example was reported in the Daily Echo in January 2014: David Horton of Decoy Pond Farm was riding in the Forest when a cyclist approached him from behind. The cyclist was not on an authorised route. He spooked the horse and Mr Horton died as a consequence of his fall from the horse.
5. Coming from Fritham to Burley, there’s a clear gravel track down to Holly Hatch. Why is it forbidden for bikes?
It’s not a matter of physical damage on the track itself. Much of the concern centres around the presence of large numbers of people, some riding bikes fast, downhill, often calling to one another as they ride, over much of the route, which runs through a designated tranquil area. The objective of such areas is that they should be kept free of noisy and disruptive recreation. If this route is opened up to cycles, it is likely to become one of the most intensively used of all cycle tracks in the Forest, not least because it runs from pub to pub!
6. Our contributors believe that in this area, e-bikes are more likely to be ridden by pensioners than boy-racers. Was that taken into consideration when a ban was discussed?
Electrically assisted pedal bicycles are not currently banned. The Verderers have received a number of representations about the use of e-bikes some of which have pointed out the benefits to elderly and less able users. Other representations have reported groups on e-bikes riding at speed and off the permitted network.
Not published: Forestry England response to the questions raised
Hi Paul, thanks for getting in touch about cycling in the New Forest, it was really helpful to see the recent extracts from the magazine and the different voices about the subject. We appreciate you asking for more information and hope that our response below will help with your fact checking:
1. Who decides which paths are allowed for cycling? Is it the Verderers or Forestry England? - Under section 23(2) of the Countryside Act 1968 Forestry England have the powers to provide tourist, recreational or sporting facilities. This give Forestry England the powers to make recreation provision on its land. The network was agreed in its current form some years ago – it was a compromise based on finding a middle ground that all stakeholders could support. As it is deemed to be a recreation facility Forestry England need Verderers believe that it requires their consent, Forestry England believe it doesn’t require consent. Under the terms of the MoU between Forestry Commissioners (Forestry England) and the Verderers 2002 as no agreement was reached on the legal requirement for consent those parties agree under the MoU that FE will seek the agreement of the Verderers and the Verderers will not unreasonably refuse.
2. Apparently, the restricted network of paths was determined in 1994. What changes have been made since then? Very limited changes around Culverley Green in Brockenhurst. Various parties have suggested updates to the Verderers but they have not permitted them. There is however an action in the National Park Recreation Management Strategy that details improvements to the off rd cycle network (4.2 – part - selective improvements to the network of permitted off road routes for cycling, carriage driving and organised events (in particular to address key gaps in the cycle network and thereby reduce the need for people to drive from residential areas or cycle on potentially dangerous roads – or be tempted to use other tracks and trails)). Forestry England and the Verderers both support the RMS actions.
3. People are annoyed to see tyre marks in the wrong places, they worry about protecting the SSSI environment. Can you give one or two examples of places where there is evidence of bike tracks causing erosion which endangered the SSSI? It’s Natural England’s role to carry out condition assessments of the SSSI, so you’d need to ask them for examples of bikes causing erosion.
4. Have off-road cyclists caused injury to people or livestock? For example, how many accidents were caused by off-road cyclists in the New Forest, in the last five years? There are no records of incidents of this nature captured in our internal system called Airsweb (that allows staff to upload photos and record details in real time). However, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been any, just that it hasn’t been reported, or it was reported to the Verderers Office instead.
5. Coming from Fritham to Burley, there’s a clear gravel track down to Holly Hatch. Why is it forbidden for bikes? It’s because there is no general legal right of access on New Forest Crown Lands by cycle, access on the Crown Lands is determined by the 1925 Law of Property Act and gives rights to access for ‘air and exercise’ principally walking. We only permit cycling on the approved network and this route isn’t part of that network despite it being a vehicle track.
6. Our contributors believe that in this area, e-bikes are more likely to be ridden by pensioners than boy-racers. Was that taken into consideration when a ban was discussed? The New Forest Verderers have been discussing a ban on e-bikes, so you’d need to ask them for their views on this matter.
Legally, e-bikes are known as electrically assisted pedal cycles or EAPCs. If a bike meets the EAPC requirements it’s classed as a normal pedal bike. This means you can ride it on cycle paths and anywhere else that pedal bikes are allowed. Forestry England supports responsible and appropriate public access including cycling on the designated waymarked routes. Cycling provides an environmentally friendly form of transport and accessible, healthy exercise for many. However, electric bikes that don’t meet EAPC legislation are not actually classed as electric bikes, but are electric motorbikes and are not legally allowed on routes permitted for cycling. We are looking at a range of measures to address anti-social behaviours carried out by a small minority of people who spend time here and this may include tackling the issue of people who are not using the waymarked gravel tracks for cycling, or non-compliant e-bikes.
We continue to discuss these issue with the Verderers, which requires, more than ever, collective effort and collaboration.
Forestry England, South District