Trail blazers are damaging Scotland’s natural landscape

Unauthorised mountain bike trails are causing safety problems in Scotland.

Care for the Countryside, an initiative organised by Scottish Land & Estates, is warning of the safety risks posed by poorly constructed self-built trails.

The past decade has witnessed the popularity of mountain biking in Scotland reach an all-time high, with purpose built facilities such as Glentress and the other 7stanes, alongside Scotland’s liberal access laws contributing to a boom in interest from riders of all ages.

However, this has also seen an increase in the number of unauthorised trails, obstacles and jumps being built by riders themselves on rural estates and farmland, with limited knowledge of how this might affect other users, the potential environmental damage and the range of mountain bikers who might use the trail.

As well as potentially proving dangerous for riders and other users, unauthorised trails present a liability for businesses and landowners who are duty-bound to risk assess the trail and develop a management strategy, which could involve removing any inappropriately dangerous obstacles from their land once discovered.

A mountain bike structure

Without following a due process landowners or managers could face the risk of being held liable should an accident occur. Building trails, even if it is only using hand tools, is not covered in either the Land Reform Act or the Scottish Outdoor Access Code – and cannot be considered as responsible access.

One estate that has experience of mountain biking is Sutherland Estate, near Golspie, which had experienced footpaths being more heavily used by mountain bikers. In response to the demand, new signage was erected to focus access takers onto certain routes on the estate.

Proposals were also brought forward for a purpose-built mountain biking facility, which was developed through a community company, Highland Wildcat. Since Highland Wildcat was established in 2005, over 18km of trail has been constructed at a cost of £600,000.

Bruce Taylor of Scottish Woodlands, who manages the Sutherland Forest Estate at Golspie, said: ‘The Highland Wildcat trails have been a huge success over the last decade. The estate recognised there was an issue with mountain bikes being used on walking routes and that demand existed for better facilities for riders. Not every estate will be able to enable such a development on their land but it is worthwhile to try and work through the issues where a positive outcome can be achieved.’

Karen Ramoo, policy officer (conservation and wildlife management) at Scottish Land and Estates, said: ‘The popularity of mountain biking in Scotland in recent years has been welcomed by rural communities across Scotland, with millions of pounds generated each year for the countryside economy through domestic and foreign riders visiting the trails.

‘Mountain biking’s popularity brings with it associated issues for farms and estates, however. We have witnessed a significant increase in riders constructing their own unauthorised trails and we are concerned that these trails are not fit for purpose and can present a real danger to riders and to other access takers.

Unauthorised trail building in Scottish woods

‘Rural businesses want to encourage mountain biking but at the same time ensure everyone enjoying a day out in the countryside has an enjoyable and fun experience. A landowner could be liable if a trail was discovered and they didn’t apply an appropriate management to the trail, leading to a rider or other access taker sustaining an injury.

‘It can also present a real problem in terms of caring for trees, land and biodiversity. We want to encourage people to enjoy mountain biking safely but also for access takers to communicate with farms and estates if they see issues when they are enjoying our countryside.’

Graeme McLean, project manager of Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland (DMBinS), agreed: ‘Scotland enjoys world-class mountain biking trails and facilities, with both purpose built trails and a great range of paths which we can ride responsibly thanks to our generous access legislation.

‘We want to encourage new and experienced participants to enjoy trails but also ensure riders are acting responsibly – caring for their surroundings and also minimising the danger to themselves.

‘Constructing unauthorised trails, obstacles and jumps on someone else’s land is illegal and brings dangers to riders, others who access the land and could potentially damage trees, flora, fauna and disturb wildlife.

‘We understand there needs to be improved information and guidance for both mountain bikers and landowners on how they can work together to minimise this issue. We are part of a sub-group of the National Access Forum who will be developing this guidance and it will be released in 2018. We hope we can find models where mountain bikers can work with landowners to create appropriate trails in the appropriate locations.

‘We support the Care for the Countryside campaign which follows our Do the Ride Thing advice guide on how to enjoy responsible mountain biking in Scotland.’