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Managed, Maintained, Manufactured

Manon Carpenter  /  6 Min Read  /  Mountain Biking

A mountain biker examines the true story behind the UK’s “natural" landscapes.

Riding through the Black Mountains of South Wales, Manon studies her environment. She wonders which part of the patchwork of green is healthy and natural, and how much represents an imbalanced monoculture? Understanding of these landscapes is still evolving.

All photos by Samantha Dugon

As I scramble up the loose shale scree to the summit of Snowdon—the highest peak in Wales at the center of Snowdonia National Park—the most common creature visible from the valley floor to the peak is livestock: sheep. Only limited vegetation grows here, despite the altitudinal treeline historically reaching over halfway up the mountain. Now, Snowdon’s mountainside is dominated by the mottled grey-green of bare rock and scruffy tufts of grass. Where woodlands were removed for timber, livestock has prevented any return or ecological succession.

Much of what remains has been modified and sustained for human purposes, altered, and maintained by land management practices, and these landscapes now host a fraction of the life they would have had previously. Rolling farmland partitioned by stone walls and hedgerows, classic emblems of UK countryside, are marketed as inherently British. But pristine examples of nature are hard to come by on this island.

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The tiny Grwyne Fawr bothy overlooks Grywne Fawr reservoir in the Black Mountains. It was originally built to supply drinking water to the South Wales valleys, but now provides a place for hikers and bikers to rest their heads for the night.

Unfortunately, many of the landscapes in the UK that we often think of as natural are downgraded versions of what once existed.

Downgraded landscapes have been disrupted by the elimination of the species at the top of a food web, often a predator. In the UK, this imbalance is often realized as the overwhelming numbers of grazing animals—three sheep to every human in Wales, or the one million deer residing in Scotland—which are more widely spread than any natural ecosystem could sustain without consequence. As these environments have remained broadly the same for generations, we have become accustomed to this being the status quo.

The low-cropped, grassy slopes across many of our national parks paint a similar picture. Grazing sheep and deer, or the burning of moorlands by grouse-raising land managers, mean that any vegetation that dares poke its head above the current carpet is often removed. Realizing this, I’ve started to see even the Scottish Highlands differently. The mountains surrounding the Fort William Downhill World Cup venue don’t feel so wild anymore.

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As a species, humans have changed our landscapes more dramatically than any other population on Earth—clearing woodland for agriculture since Neolithic times, around 10,000 BC. In the UK, woodland coverage fell to 5% during the First World War and has since only increased to 12% with the addition of commercial coniferous plantations that make up over half of the island’s forests.

The hilltops around my hometown are mostly common land. Places I’ve been free to roam on foot are mostly no longer grazed by livestock and returning to their natural state. Here on the outskirts of Cardiff, Wales’ capital city, a lot of the green space is valued for nature and recreation. Over time, I have seen the subtle regrowth of shrubs and trees, the sparse hilltops becoming more colorful and diverse.

I consider myself lucky to have grown up near an area of land that has been left to its own devices. I have witnessed fields, unmanaged or ungrazed for a decade or more, evolve into a patchwork of meadows, marshland, and emerging scrubland (dominated by shrubs). The turn of every season provides hopeful, reassuring proof of nature’s ability to flourish when given the opportunity.

manon carpenter looks out from monutain bike in uk

“Becoming more aware of the state of our environment has enhanced my experience of being outdoors, rather than the opposite. I notice I take more time to breathe in my surroundings, imagine how the environment came to be, and what it might become in the future. “—Manon Carpenter.

In South Wales, many mountain bikers, including myself, have seen commercial, imported larch forestry as creating some of the best so-called loamy trail conditions. The trees are often planted on sandstone hillsides, and the resulting mixture of sandy soil and larch needles provides just enough grip to let you get loose. A huge proportion of the tree coverage in South Wales is in plantations, and when these get clear-felled, the ground conditions deteriorate significantly as the soil dries out and is washed or blown away.

How much of the idea that larch creates the best riding conditions is due to having little else in the area to compare it with? Only 1.2% of semi-natural ancient woodland remains in the UK. Where native woodland does survive in South Wales, the soil type is typically limestone-derived clay that is not favorable for commercial forestry. What would the sandstone hillsides that hold most of today’s larch forestry and popular riding spots have looked like before?

The initial disturbance and degradation of an ecosystem is a net emitter of carbon. Frequently, the disturbance is to make way for monoculture plantations—the cultivation of a single crop or species in a given area—like those in commercial forestry. When these plantations are felled, the ecosystem deteriorates further, releasing more carbon and losing even more topsoil—not ideal for the ecology of the forest or mountain bikers.

manon carpenter rips on her mountain bike in the uk

A lot of the Black Mountains is open grassland; where restoration work has been undertaken, peat bogs take hold. Most of the riding is open and exposed, with some rough, rocky sandstone paths on steep-sided valleys. Up high on the more gently sloped ridgetops, flowing grassy paths provide miles of scenic trail riding.

I’ve spent so much of my riding life in commercial forestry, but only recently noticed how lifeless the understory can be. Densely packed, scraggly larch have foliage only at the top of the canopy where there’s access to sunlight, like a tray of seedlings in need of thinning. Many of the surviving native woodlands in the UK are protected sites because of the species and ecosystems they still host. When crossing directly from native woodland, with a vibrant understory, wildflowers, and ferns, into commercial forestry carpeted only by pine needles, the difference is stark.

Last year I saw that the evolving marshland near my childhood home that I had previously thought of as being left to its own devices has, in fact, a wide drainage channel dug along its lower margin, between the field and adjacent stream, preventing it from holding moisture. Unaltered, this would be a natural wetland, drawing down carbon and hosting an entire ecosystem currently absent from this area. Many of our landscapes hold a history of ”improvement”—altering the natural balance of the land for cultivation—with little space reserved for nature alone.

Mountain biking, of course, has its own impact. A trail takes up space, and its use will disturb the natural order of a forest, in the immediate vicinity, at least. However, we can think about how to foster a healthy relationship with the landscape, one that  balances the benefits to trail users with responsible stewardship” to allow nature to thrive. There are sustainable ways to build and maintain trails—ways that limit degradation, soil erosion, and improve water management. Protecting native woodlands, and regulating forestry to prioritize nature over profits, would not only reduce the amount of clear-felling, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, but could also safeguard and potentially even improve riding in the UK.

manon carpenter mountain biking in the uk managed landscapes

Manon boosts past a lone hawthorn tree—a rugged species that can survive where less hardy trees struggle—amongst fields of heather, one of the most common low-growing shrubs in the Black Mountains.

In the UK, we are far from self-sufficient in both timber and food. But, somehow, we need to elevate the importance of nature on our list of priorities. We need to re-evaluate how we use and value land. We have only experienced what has existed in our lifetimes, although examples of deforestation in other countries hint at what once happened here, what existed before. Now we need to imagine what could be. What does a world where we co-exist with nature look like? I know that my trail-riding experience is taken to another level when I am in an ecologically thriving landscape.

Imagine a future for the UK countryside where our national parks have more ”wild” landscapes, rather than livestock-grazed mountain tops where the balance of forestry tips more toward healthy, diverse, continuous-cover woodlands rather than the dominance of monoculture plantations which are felled in one swoop.

With more engaged groups of mountain bikers emerging—citizens and stakeholders who are interested and invested in our outdoor spaces—and as more of us discover and get to know these areas, can we advocate for better management and restoration of the landscapes we ride in? Examples already exist where mountain bikers and mountain bike developers have been able to directly enhance the natural environment of an area.

The UK’s countryside, amongst many other countries’, has what it needs to become more vibrant and extensive, more interconnected, and diverse. But we need to give nature the opportunity to thrive and to revive areas where it cannot bounce back alone. Yes, we need timber and we need space for agriculture, and for mountain biking, we need the trails we recreate on. But we also need nature for each of those industries, and so many more, to flourish.

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