Cycling campaign groups and local clubs have claimed that the Verderers’ Court – an elected group of New Forest custodians – are singling out cyclists and acting like supporters of South Africa’s apartheid regime after the court renewed its call for cyclists who stray from the national park’s approved paths to be prosecuted.
The Verderers, a body dating back to the 13th century which carries out similar functions to a magistrates’ court concerning matters related to the New Forest, say that the issue of off-route cyclists has become a "widespread problem”, and have claimed that that people on bikes disturb nature, erode paths and harm nocturnal animals with their lights.
Speaking at a recent session of the court, the Official Verderer, Lord Manners, claimed that there had been more than 700 instances of off-track cycling during the summer, the Telegraph reports.
Manners noted to the group that he was not “anti-cycling”, but nevertheless called on Forestry England, which manages almost half of the New Forest, to take legal action against cyclists deviating from the permitted routes.
Manners’ call for legal action echoes the Verderers’ warning in January 2021 that over 100 miles of the national park’s off-road cycle routes could be axed unless Forestry England “toughens up” on what the court claimed were “out of control” cyclists.
Despite Forestry England’s request for an additional three years’ worth of access to the network of waymarked tracks (including bridleways, gravel tracks and fire roads) the Verderers’ Court only provided a 12-month extension, and warned the group that no further extensions will be granted unless it takes steps to stop riders from deviating from the marked paths – or as one court member put it, “gangs of hardcore bikers determined to ride where they please.”
At the recent meeting, Lord Manners renewed the organisation’s demand for a crackdown on trespassing cyclists.
“The Verderers have over many years expressed to Forestry England their concerns over the ever-increasing amount of cyclists who regularly trespass off the approved cycle routes,” he said.
“Headlamps now throw a beam many metres ahead which can be seen far away. These facilitate more night cycling, apparently regardless of the impact on nocturnal animals.”
Arguing that rule-breaking cyclists should be treated by police in the same way as the owners of dogs who harass livestock, Manners continued: “The issue of concern is not that of the cyclist who gets lost or the family who inadvertently strays from the network. The issue is those who persistently flout the bylaw.”
However, local cyclists have pointed out that there is no evidence that cyclists harm nature more than any other group of visitors to the New Forest, and say that the Verderers are simply exhibiting “antagonism” and “prejudice” towards people on bikes.
“Cyclists are often treated very badly,” says David Orme, the chairman of Christchurch Bicycle Club. “In the forest, there is one rule for horse riders and a completely different rule for cyclists. All the prejudice against cyclists is not taking into account the actual evidence. It’s built-in bias.
“They should focus on cars, littering, fly-tipping and speeding vehicles instead of picking on cyclists. Cars do all the killing. I’m not aware of any cyclists killing animals.”
Responding to the demands for legal action against cyclists, Orme told the Telegraph: “There’s no need for this antagonism. When the Verderers say they are not anti-cycling, it makes me think of apartheid advocates saying they’re not racist.”
Sophie Gordon, a campaigns officer at Cycling UK, agreed with Orme’s view that the Verderers are singling out cyclists.
“There is no evidence that cycling causes any extra impact on wildlife than other visitors. It’s just a huge disparity. Only five per cent of visitors are cyclists,” says Gordon.
“If there are areas of the forest that need to be kept tranquil and protected, then fair enough, but don’t have a double ban on cyclists, have it restricted for walkers and everyone else too. That seems more reasonable.”
A Forestry England spokesman said: “We recognise that there are some concerns regarding cyclists straying beyond the cycle network and the potential impact on sensitive areas of the Forest. We are working closely with New Forest groups and also those representing cyclists to look at additional ways to address this.”
The Verderers’ criticism of cyclists in the New Forest isn’t the first time this year that people on bikes have come into conflict with custodians and other users of the park.
In January, the New Forest Association (NFA) claimed the national park has been adversely affected by “damaging and illegal activities” and accused off-route cyclists of anti-social behaviour and disturbance of habitats.
The NFA, the second oldest conservation organisation in the world (founded in 1867) and charged with “protecting, conserving and enhancing the flora, fauna and heritage of the New Forest”, said that it had gathered evidence of anti-social behaviour during ‘staycation season’ and highlighted problems with off-route cycling, dog mess and feeding livestock.
In July, walkers and horse riders also complained that they were being put in danger by cyclists riding down steep gravel tracks at high speed at a popular beauty spot in the New Forest. One walker even suggested that “someone could be killed” if cyclists continue to descend the incline rather than dismounting to walk as signs ask.
Ryan joined road.cc as a news writer in December 2021. He has written about cycling and some ball-centric sports for various websites, newspapers, magazines and radio. Before returning to writing about cycling full-time, he completed a PhD in History and published a book and numerous academic articles on religion and politics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (though he remained committed to boring his university colleagues and students with endless cycling trivia). He can be found riding his bike very slowly through the Dromara Hills of Co. Down.