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Scheduling Of Cave SSSI's On Mendip


During the last two months landowners and farmers in the Priddy area have been contacted by the Nature Conservancy Council informing them that sections of their land would be scheduled as an SSSI in the near future.  Previously some owners in the East Mendip area had been approached by letter during 1983/84 and during January of this year the NCC contacted those affected in the Priddy area.  What was new to landowners involved and to the Council of Southern Caving Clubs was that there was to be an accompanying list of 28 damaging activities as required by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.  Depending on the reason for a particular piece of land being scheduled determined how many of the 28 activities would be enforced. Each landowner would have four months from the time of the official letter of the actual scheduling taking place to appeal to the NCC or negotiate terms of usage for their particular piece of land.

The original revision of cave SSSI's contributed to by the CSCC during 1978-1980 was on the understanding that the conditions of the SSSI would be the same as that which had applied to many cave sites here on Mendip and elsewhere in the country since 1957. It was a great shock to both landowners and cavers, to say the very least, as the relationship between both has been the very basis of caving activity here on Mendip.  For general information a catalogue of events is given below to outline the situation that is with us today.

In 1974 the NCC decided that a Geological Conservation Review should be carried out and as part of this in 1977 the NCA and BCRA were jointly contracted to prepare a list of cave sites.  A working party was set up with Dave Judson as convenor to carry out the three year contract which was complete in 1980.  The list of Mendip sites to be scheduled was drawn up and approved by the CSCC in 1978 and the necessary write-ups submitted to the NCA/BCRA Working Party in 1980.  When all the Regions had completed their work a national list was drawn up and out of those put forward by the CSCC seven out of eight were accepted.  Tony Waltham was then contracted by the NCC to write the final report and a list of 48 sites (many encompassing a number of individual caves) were included that could be justified on a national basis.

The NCC was to schedule these sites as soon as possible; however the Wildlife and Countryside Act came into effect toward the end of 1981 complicating the matter.  This required all sites, existing and proposed, to be notified in accordance with the new procedures set out therein. Overall this involved an extraordinary amount of work and although the Mendip sites were nearly scheduled in 1983/84, as mentioned at the May 84 AGM, this came to nothing.  The current situation has arisen because the sites are now being notified.  Through informal contact with the NCC it was discovered that this was being done at the end of January and as a matter of course this was mentioned at the CSCC meeting on the 15 February.  At this meeting the list of damaging activities applicable to cave sites, as supplied by the NCC, was also read out.

For all SSSI's there is a standard master list of 28 damaging activities and when a site is scheduled specific ones from this are notified as those being likely to damage that sites particular special interest.  The list was drawn up by a NCC Special Committee and they are under a statutory obligation to specify any activity that may have an effect on any particular site, and they try to be as comprehensive as possible since unless an activity has been notified they can do nothing about it later.  The NCC have stated that the activities to be notified for all cave sites are similar, and they confirmed at the landowners meeting that no more than 7 would apply to the Priddy caves.  In some cases confusion may arise due to extra activities being specified for certain sites.  This is because some are also scheduled for ether reasons in addition to the cave interest e.g. flora, fauna etc, and in these instances they expand the list accordingly.  This is an obvious area of confusion about which we can do nothing, although landowners are told why the site is being scheduled.

To quote from an NCC letter to the landowners of cave sites "As most of the interest is underground, it is unlikely that notification as an SSSI would conflict with present farming practice".  The procedure for scheduling is that the list of damaging activities is notified, but prior to this as a PR exercise a visiting officer explains that exemption will be given for any specific things that the landowner needs or wishes to do as part of his livelihood, and to enable this he has to provide a list to the NCC.  The NCC point out that there is no other way that this could be done since if a list of specific damaging activities had to be drawn up for each site this would be incredibly long, and however comprehensive it appeared to be it is certain that something would be missed.

Regarding the matter that directly concerns us the NCC have stressed that no landowner will be affected unless he does, or intends to do something, that might specifically damage the cave and even then they have stated they would try to solve any problems amicably, or in the case of certain activities offer financial assistance toward solving them, rather than use their statutory powers.  With respect to this the NCC have expressed an interest in solving the pollution problems in Swildons and preliminary discussions have been held with Robin Main and it seems likely that it may be possible to stop this by mutual agreement and with the assistance of grant aid.  This would not be possible if the cave had not been an SSSI.  The NCC have also stated that if they did prevent a landowner from carrying out a specific activity, compensation would be paid so no financial loss would be involved.

Comments have been made that it is remiss of the CSCC not to have been aware of the potential problems and been able to pave the way prior to the event.  This would have required the Council to have had prior knowledge of when notification was to take place and the statutory procedures involved in scheduling, which we did not.  In any case it may well have been impossible since the NCC avoid landowners knowing of the scheduling until they are formally notified.  This is due to past problems where the knowledge has jeopardised the site being scheduled or resulted in damage being done prior to notification.  It would be nice to argue that this would not apply to cave sites however this is not possible since, as already mentioned, many are also scheduled for other reasons.

The Council fully accepts that this whole business is causing a major problem here on Mendip and has attacked the very foundation of the relationship between landowners and the caving community.  The effect has been at the time of writing for Hunters Hole and a dig site near Eastwater Cavern to be closed.  The CSCC is currently making contact with several outside bodies including the NCC for advice and clarification. Further details will be circulated to clubs when any relevant information is available.

Dave Irwin, Chairman
Graham Price, C&A Officer 30.4.86.