Chris Gibbs reports from the second Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland conference that focuses on guidance for unauthorised trail building.

Back in 2016, we reported from the inaugural DMBinS conference in Aviemore where the main question was whether illegal trail building was the future of mountain biking in Scotland.

There was definitely more questions than answers from the 2016 event, but in the intervening two years, there has been a paper written on guidance for those seeking to build trails, as well as landowners and estate managers.

Photos by Ross Bell.

Head guide for H+I Adventures Chris Gibbs, gives us his take on the new guidance and the conference itself:

The dust (well maybe mud is more accurate) has just started to settle following the bi annual Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland conference.

Hosted in Aviemore in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, which lies in the shadow of Cairngorm Mountain and the imposing Northern Corries as well as being home to one quarter of the UK’s threatened species, you couldn’t ask for a better setting to show off mountain biking in Scotland. The event brings together companies and individuals at the forefront of mountain biking, innovation and environmentalism from within Scotland and across the globe.

The theme for this years event was ‘The Trail Ahead’. How can we forge ahead, learn from other industries and create the best for mountain biking in both the long term and short term future?

Force for good.

One of the most inspiring talks of the conference came from Hugo Tagholm, the Chief Executive of Surfers Against Sewage. He spoke about his 10 year battle to raise awareness on Britain’s water quality, as well as how the charity changed from a dwindling group of anarchistic surfers to being a force for good, able to apply political pressure to implement positive change.

It is an example of how passionate people coming together can make a huge difference, and certainly showed how we could learn from our aquatic brethren.

Workshops over the 2 days gave an opportunity for detailed discussions into marketing our sport, innovation, the effects of MTB on mental health and the future of campaigning and support for Scottish mountain biking.

The trail ahead.

Arguably the conversation that overshadowed all others was a continuation of the one which started in 2016. In 2016 the conference asked the question ‘Are unauthorised trails the key to improving Scotland’s trail network?’. Roll on two years and the question seems to have remained largely the same, however the underlying attitude of all those involved is slowly but undeniably changing, and that’s a good thing.

The conference served as a platform to launch new guide lines for building unauthorised trails. A guide for builders, riders and landowners alike. Developing Mountain Biking Scotland are keen to shake the negative connotations of ‘illegal trails’, so much so that they have been renamed as ‘unauthorised trails’.

For those that don’t know, access laws in Scotland are some of the most open in the world with the ‘right to roam’, or the more commonly accepted ‘the right to responsible access’. Brought in by the Land Reform Act in 2003, it means that all land and inland water is accessible to the public with only a few very limited exclusions. The Scottish perspective is that land is for the greater good, not the privileged few.

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Right to roam.

For mountain bikers north of the border, it means that we are not limited to trail centres and bridleways. Instead, everything from footpaths to mountain trails are accessible, and have led to Scotland being viewed internationally as one of the best mountain biking destinations in the world. Where the lines get blurry is building trails on public accessible land, rather than just riding existing lines.

At first glance these new guidelines could be easily mistaken for a how to on something we’re not supposed to do, however dig a little deeper (pun intended) and the underlying intention is one that could open up untapped trail gold.

The guide sees the coming together of the National Access Forum, DMBINS, Forestry Commission, Scottish Land and Estates, and Scottish Natural Heritage. Whilst that might sound like a dinner party with enough tweed jackets to make even the bravest grouse nervous, for mountain bikers it is the first step in our much loved trails being recognised as an asset rather than a dirty secret hidden in the forest.

Unsung heroes.

The launch of the guide made enough noise that it even featured on the BBC News. Trail builders are the unsung heroes of mountain biking, and unauthorised trails are what most mountain bikers enjoy riding the most, leading some landowners and managers to be brave enough to now admit that unauthorised trail building is here to stay,

The overarching theme of the guide is that of communication and education – encouraging trail builders to create trails in a way that are sustainable and pose less risk to other trail users. For instance, simple things such as exit points that allow riders to see far enough ahead not to collide with vehicles or walkers.

There is also a huge emphasis on contacting the owner or land manager of the area that builders are intending on putting in trails to open up channels of communication and make the process a better experience for everyone involved. Many land managers were keen to lets riders know they don’t always say no, and might even point builders to areas that would better suit a trail.

Tolerate and monitor.

Overall, the stories of good news outnumbered the bad. The Forestry Commission which already tolerate and monitor many unauthorised trails gave examples of where this has been done well, Several trail centres such as Laggan WolfTrax viewed the unauthorised trail building as a huge value to them, drawing in and catering to riders that wanted a different flavour to the heavily engineered official trails.

Some land owners have welcomed new trails, citing them as an asset to their land and putting in car parks and cafes to serve those using the them and to generate money for the estate.

However, this is not always the consensus, and it seems that some still have antiquated views on the mountain biking community. Maybe this is a glimpse into a bigger problem. Are we as riders partly responsible for this? Do we under represent ourselves?

Looking at the riders I spend most time with, all of them are environmentally conscious, all are ambassadors for good trail etiquette, nature, conservation and generally good human beings, not the Hell’s Angels of the woods as some want to believe us to be.

Perhaps now is the perfect time for us riders take a step up, pass on good trail building etiquette to those less experienced and represent our community for what it really is, and in so doing we might not just forge one trail ahead, but many more trails.

Copies of the Unauthorised Trail Guidance are available through Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland.

Hopefully we will see more progress and news of excellent collaborations after the 2020 conference.