Promoting observation, free range exploration, sense of place and citizen science, through the field notes of a naturalist.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Perturbators

Whether we admit to them or not we all have prejudices. These will have been fashioned and influenced overtime by friends, family, workmates, politicians, the media and social order. But there comes a time when a free thinking, enquiring mind challenges those mainstream prejudices. Take for example off road driving. I have always viewed this activity as highly damaging to the ecology of our open countryside. From racing up spoil tips, cutting through upland peat bog to the muddying of a footpath through an ancient woodland, a close encounter with those enjoying themselves with machines, has, until recently filled me with tub thumping rage. 'Don't you know access to the open landscape is only for  Berghaus wearing, GPS carrying tourists and not for local people to use for fun'? So does this view stand up to scrutiny and should it be exposed as nothing more than a prejudice designed by middle class professionals to control working class lads from have a bit of relaxation on whats left of our accessible green space? And are their activities really damaging wildlife interests?

There's no pristine wilderness habitat left. All that we cherish and protect for its rich biodiversity has been created and shaped by the actions of man. Take for example those 'highly valued and protected SSSIs' jewels in the crown of the post war nature conservation ethic of which the vast majority are the product of human interventions in the landscape. Llandegfedd Reservoir once a rural idle with wooded streams, wild daffodils and five bar gates whereby wellie wearing, thumb stick carrying farmers could rest for a fag and survey the chocolate box landscape. Now pumped with water to quench the dry throats of Cardiff but celebrated as one of the principal inland water bodies for wildfowl and awarded the lofty accolade of SSSI. Also the Gwent Levels reclaimed from the Severn Estuary used for agriculture,compensation for a barrage and protected by a concrete sea wall. Any threat to this man made SSSI is met by the wrath of conservationists many of whom would happily sacrifice their dignity to lay in front of a road builders JCB. So could it be that contrary to the popular belief that off roading is damaging to ecology, and in the absence of teams of work party conservationists actively diversifying the landscape, that this form of recreation could be providing a valuable ecosystem service by default, and if so what's the supporting evidence?

The impact off roading in Gwent is sharply focused in its coalfield valleys where urbanisation and ribbon development follows the more accessible valley bottoms but thins quickly as the contours narrow. This ensures that valley communities are never too far away from open countryside. On summer weekends and  evenings the throaty sound of motorbikes mix with singing skylark, willow warbler and shouting Welsh mams to provide an ambiance that's uniquely valleys.

Evidence of off roading especially in the uplands is not hard to see. Deeply incised tracks through wet heath and peat, circular patterns on plateaus of part vegetated spoil and hill climbs through scattered ffridd beech woodland the scars are all around. From an aesthetic perspective this is often not a pretty sight but nonetheless is, I would argue, disturbance ecology in action.  Tracks through homogeneous bracken covered slopes increase patchiness and edge habitat for nesting whinchat.  Bare ground maintained and alternated by the variable linear actions of tyre treads are ideal for basking adders and common lizard, for predatory invertebrates such as the green tiger beetle in pursuit of that mottled grasshopper. And in the drier areas the surface breaking actions of a group of tearaways in Wolf Speed jackets offer feeding opportunities for wheatear or if you're lucky a trip of dotterel. Some of the best places for water beetles, palmate newts and odonata such as scarce blue tailed damselfly and keeled skimmer are from water holding wheel ruts thereby compensating for an institutional fear of maintaining standing water habitat.

Now you may think I've lost the plot but it seems I'm not the only one to hold these subversive alternative views. The campaigning geographer and peri-urban champion Marion Shoard in her contribution to the book Urban Wildcapes (Jorgensen and Keenan 2011) cites an example of incidental habitat enhancement. She says:

'  ........attract low-key uses which actually enhance wildlife and wilderness value. Scramble biking produces small-scale disturbance which generates loose friable substrates on the West Thurrock Marshes. This makes nesting easier for rare burrowing bees and wasps , such as the brown-banded carder bee and the five-banded weevil wasp..........'

There are of course undeniable issues with motorbiking in peri-urban environments which shouldn't be ignored. My personal aspiration of enjoying a peaceful walk is often shattered by bikers who tend not to have much regard for other users. They can also play havoc with livestock thereby incurring the wrath of Commoners and in doing so act illegally. And in the brave new world of industrial archaeology free spirited bikers may cause damage to the values society has now placed on these landscape features. However in societies scramble to persecute those enjoying themselves with machines we can easily lack objectivity and overlook some of the beneficial aspects of which one, I would argue, could be nature conservation.     


  1. Good post Steve...Makes me feel less guilty for when i used to take my DT125LC about the tips.

    I suppose those Defense Training Estates are a fine example?

    Regards Chris.

  2. Thanks mate - I think this posting could generate a little bit of interest!

  3. How many pipit, skylark, stonechat, whinchat, wheatear, snipe, grouse, perhaps merlin and hen harrier and even the aforementioned dotterel and the disappearing lapwings nests eggs and chicks are destroyed by off roaders. Yes let them enjoy their pastime but in arrears that are designated for them not let them ride carte blanche all over the countryside.

    1. Thanks Dawson you are absolutly right. Lapwings breeding in Blaenavon for example are often disturbed by motorbikes and they will impact on other nesting birds as well. Designated areas could be useful but I think alot of the bikers like to be free spirits and therefore may not be wish to be restricted to a special site. I'm certainly not trying to make a case for the uncontrolled destruction of the countryside just looking at it from a different perspective. I have challenged some bikers and been threatened with violence for my troubles. So I'm no champion of their anti-social activities.

      Thanks Steve

  4. Steve, everything you have said is right. This of course shows there is never a simple black and white answer to it all. Within such a small land space as we have here in the UK it is impossible to have large tracts of land that is given over completely to provide enough land area to provide the various types of landscape that will provide the widest opportunity for biodiversity. There is always the risk of crating a single type of landscape that in reality is no different from the type of monoculture that we already create with planted forestry and modern farm fields without hedgerows. So perhaps a small amount of off road use, although annoying to some of us, can create mini landscapes useful in allowing greater diversity. No easy straight answer. Especially as many South Wales landscPes are far from natural.

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