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Letter re Re-scheduling of Cave SSSI's on Mendip

Constituent member of NCA

please reply to:•


Dr Keith Duff
Head of Geology and Physiography
Nature Conservancy Council
Northminster House

7 May 1986

Dear Keith,

Re-scheduling of Cave SSSI's on Mendip

Further to our recent discussions I am writing to confirm some of the points raised to which a reply would be appreciated.

The current re-scheduling of the cave SSSI's on Mendip, specifically those in the Priddy area, is causing major problems with a number of landowners greatly concerned about the effect it will have on them and their livelihood.  The blame for the scheduling is being placed clearly with the caving community in general and myself in particular as Conservation and Access Officer of the Council, and as a result we are receiving the brunt of the criticism and suffering from the effects.  To date this has involved the closure of two caves and refusal of permission to continue a surface dig.  This situation is totally unacceptable and indications are that, with feelings running at such a high level, this may only be the beginning of the problems.

The relationship between cavers and landowners on Mendip has been extremely good in the past but has now been put in serious jeopardy.  Although we obviously wish to see caves offered the maximum possible protection we believe this must not be to the detriment of the landowners.  From their point of view the major concern is with respect to the very long list of damaging activities with which they have been presented.  Although we understand that many of these will be consented and that perhaps only in the region of six will apply, we believe that these can, and should, be further minimised in many instances by restricting their application to very limited areas, specifically in the immediate vicinity of cave entrances.  It is essential that any interference with landowners is reduced to the absolute minimum.

In 1978 when the BCRA and NCA undertook the SSSI Revision on "behalf of the NCC one of the guidelines was that whole catchment areas were included where appropriate. Consequently on Mendip the whole of the Wookey Hole catchment was proposed as a single site, this including a number of individual caves.

As a single unit there is no doubt that the catchment is nationally important and of special scientific interest, however there are a number of individual caves within the area that cannot be considered scientifically important in their own right, although these were automatically included by default.

Since the NCC has been notifying the Priddy caves it has become apparent that the original criteria have changed in that individual caves are being scheduled, not areas. Although it may seem logical to take all caves within the original area and notify each, this has presented a problem in that a number of the smaller ones, specifically Hunters Hole, North Hill Swallet, Sludge Pit and Nine Barrows, cannot be justified as being of national importance and should therefore not be scheduled as SSSI's.  In view of the changed circumstances we would therefore suggest that these caves are removed from the Revision.

Another matter of great concern to the Council is the effect of a site being scheduled on normal caver activities.  It is our understanding that it is not the intention of the NCC to try and restrict these in any way and that responsibility for looking after caves underground, whether the activities involve purely sporting caving, digging, or scientific research, will be the direct responsibility of the caving community. Your confirmation that this is the case would be appreciated.

There is however another extremely important aspect of caver activities that may have been overlooked, this being with respect to those on the surface.  Caving in the broadest sense not only includes underground activity but also a number of associated things on the surface.  If we first consider existing caves often maintenance including construction works or modification of the entrance may be required.  This could take the form of gating, building blockhouses, installing shafts etc., all of which might be considered a damaging activity within the terms of the scheduling.

The other problem is associated with surface digs which may or may not be associated with the cave in question, and could be located anywhere within the scheduled area. A major pastime of cavers is digging to find new caves and it would appear that these activities may be severely affected.

Obviously it would be unreasonable to expect a landowner to obtain permission from the NCC should cavers wish to start a dig on their land, and if this were the case it is likely that permission would be refused.  The Council considers this situation to be unacceptable and would appreciate confirmation as to how you intend to avoid these problems occurring.

We trust that you fully appreciate the difficulties with which we are now faced and will be able to take all possible steps to aid in returning the situation on Mendip to normal.

Yours sincerely,

Graham Price
Conservation and Access Officer


Great Britain Headquarters

Northminster House, Peterborough PE1 1UA Telephone Peterborough (0733) 40345

Mr G Price
Conservation and Access Officer
Council of Southern Caving Clubs

14 May 1986

Dear Graham


Thank you for your letter of 7 May.  As you know, I have been heavily involved in dealing with the unfortunate difficulties which have arisen over the renotification of the Priddy SSSI, and I am confident that the problems will be resolved in the near future.

Let me assure you, at the outset, that NCC has no intention of interfering with cave access in any way. Our aim is to safeguard cave sites of national scientific importance so that they can be used for research and education.  In this we are heavily dependent upon advice and information provided to us by cavers, since we have no in-house practical caving expertise.  We rely upon the caving community for advice on selecting SSSI’s (viz the BCRA/NCA consortium of 1978-1981) and for advice on their subsequent safeguard (viz the extensive consultation we undertook prior to responding to the recent Fairy Cave Quarry planning application).  Our view is that we should make full use of the provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, and the 1977 Town and Country Planning General Development Order, to protect cave SSSI in the ways that are recommended to us by cavers; we do not intend to take unilateral action of any kind.  The Wildlife and Countryside Act provides considerably enhanced mechanisms for safeguarding SSSI, and we believe that these should be used to best effect in protecting cave SSSl, but only in the ways that cavers feel to be necessary in site specific cases.  In particular, I must stress that all existing access arrangements for caves will be supported by NCC; we have no wish or intention to interfere with any of them.  I am happy to confirm that we see the caving community taking responsibility for the underground safeguard of caves, and applaud the NCA "Adopt-a-Cave scheme."

I am concerned that renotification of cave SSSI should have resulted in "blame" being directed in any direction.  The whole basis of the Wildlife and Countryside Act mechanisms is that landowners and occupiers should not be disadvantaged financially as a result of the provisions of the Act being applied.  Compensation for, loss of profits is available in the event of NCC not being able to agree to the undertaking of a listed Potentially Damaging Operation (PDO). Having said that, the number of PDO which apply to cave sites is very small, and their application is not intended to cause any restriction of normal caving activities.

"Consent letters" are issued by NCC to release owners and occupiers from many of the detailed "restrictions" which occur in the PDO lists, and these specifically include a consent to allow the unhindered continuation of normal caving activities, in which we include cave exploration, cave digging underground (including the modification of cave entrances) gating of caves, building blockhouses, collecting of samples for research, digging on the surface to seek new caves (and the works associated with such activities).

Most of the difficulties and misunderstandings at Priddy have arisen because the Priddy Caves and Priddy Pools SSSI is a joint geological and biological SSSI. The procedures which have been laid down by the Treasury Solicitor, and which NCC are obliged to follow when notifying new SSSI or renotifying existing SSSI, specify that each SSSI must have one overall map, statement of interest and list of PDO which relate to the whole site. It is then for NCC to issue, individual landowners and occupiers, a consent letter which excludes them from liability in respect of specified PDOs for their land.  NCC is not permitted to send consent letters at the same time as notification letters, and the normal procedure is that these follow a few days later.  Consequently, all owners and occupiers of the Priddy SSSI received a full list of PDO, but then received a consent letter a few days later, covering the bulk of the operations on their land.  It would appear that these consent letters were perhaps not as specific with regard to normal caving activities as they could have been, and we are now in the process of revising them, with more specific consent being sent out shortly. In general terms, the application of consents would normally follow the lines set out below:

PDO 7:             This applies only to the cave entrance area.  Normal caving activities within the cave or cave entrance, and which could involve dumping, spreading or discharge of any materials, will be consented.

PDO 12a:          In Mendip, consent would normally be granted for tree-planting.

PDO 13a:          In Mendip. consent would normally be granted for drainage modifications, but this would need to be site specific, in consultation with caving organisations.

PDO 15:            This PDO will remain.

PDO 21:            This applies only to cave entrances and areas immediately adjacent.  Normal caving activities which involve any of these operations will be consented.

PDO 22:            Normal caving activities will be consented.

PDO 23:            As for 21.

PDO 24:            Normal caving activities will be consented, and would include gating caves and building blockhouses.  We would retain consultation rights over proposals to block cave entrances.

PDO 27:            Consent will be given for this PDO; no existing access arrangements will be affected.

I note your uncertainty about the individual scientific merits of Hunters Hole, North Hill Swallet, Nine Barrows Swallet and Sludge Pit Hole.  I am seeking the views of the convenors of the BCRA/NCA consortium responsible for selection of cave GCR sites (Tony Waltham and Dave Judson), as well as Willie Stanton (in his guise as author of the write-ups for Priddy). I cannot pre-judge their advice, but can assure you that all cave SSSI notified by NCC must be justifiable, and that we will reconsider the status of these sites if the advice we receive suggests that we should.  In the meantime, amended consent letters are currently being prepared for these sites, along the lines specified above.  I will ensure that the CSCC is kept informed.

I hope that this letter sets your mind at rest with regard to NCC's intentions regarding cave conservation.  I am aware that a good deal of rumour and mischievous misinformation concerning our "intentions" is circulating, and can assure you that these are unfounded.  I must repeat my earlier statement that NCC seeks to safeguard caves for cavers, and that all our actions are taken after consultation with representatives of the caving organisations; we have no interest in 'empire-building' and do not act unilaterally.

I trust that the sound relationships that have been established between NCC and the caving organisations, including the CSCC, will be maintained, and hope that we will continue to liaise closely with CSCC over cave conservation in the Mendips.

Dr K L Duff
Head of Geology & Physiography Section


Open letter to all members of Council of Southern Clubs Member Clubs.

30th April 1986

Dear Cavers,

You may remember that up to eighteen months ago I acted on your behalf as Secretary of the CSCC but unfortunately, due to business commitments, had to relinquish the post. I have now been asked by a number of cavers to stand for the post of Conservation and Access Officer and, for the reasons set out below, I have agreed.

You may know that there has been a review of SSSI's (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) going on for some time.  The purpose of this designation is to protect any site, not only caves, considered to be of special interest.  A list of sites was approved by the CSCC in 1979/80 but due to the appearance of the Wildlife and Countryside Act it is only now that the designations are being made. What alarms me and a great many others is that the scope of the sites and the restrictions placed thereon has increased greatly from that approved some six years ago.  Not only that but it appears that these designations will have a detrimental effect on access rather than as intended.

Landowners received on 21st April 1986 details of the land which is now designated and the restrictions placed thereon.  The designations cover all land within specific boundaries i.e. whole fields not just the cave entrance and the restrictions placed thereon are such as to preclude the landowners continued use of the land without the agreement of the Nature Conservancy Council. Naturally landowners blame cavers for this intrusion into their right to use the land as they wish and I am receiving an increasing number of reports of access being restricted, permission to dig being withheld, etc.

Cavers have for many years had good relations with Mendip landowners and access has always been maintained without the need for the sort of situation that prevails in other parts of the country.  Overnight these carefully maintained relations have been swept away.

Why is it therefore that the C & A Officer of the CSCC did not see fit to specifically inform the CSCC of the potential problems when they first became apparent.  I believe that he has, in fact been involved with these designations to such a point that he has failed to see the problems that would be created.

We must now do our best to redress the situation by pursuing a policy sympathetic to the landowners who give us access.  To continue on our present route can only be to the detriment of Mendip Caving.  To this end, the present C & A Officer must step down as his credibility with the landowners involved is in serious doubt.

Likewise the situation with Fairy Cave Quarry.  Whilst I cannot comment on this as a whole as the CSCC can have no policy on a situation which is - being handled by an individual club I am concerned that the NCA has, to all intents and purposes, interfered in CSCC affairs without its agreement.  The case in point being that the NCA Chairman has written to all Local Councillors seeking their support against the granting of planning permission to Hobbs Quarries for their proposals for Fairy Cave Quarry of which you should remember the formation of a show cave forms only one part.  I do not understand how, within the terms of the NCA Constitution, they can have a policy which is, in effect, a direct contradiction to the CSCC Constitution and, ultimately, sets cavers in general as well as the CSCC against a large commercial company to whom caving interests and access requirements count for nothing.

This is the situation as I and a large number of others see it.  I believe that under the guise of a policy of. Conservation and Access we have been brought into direct confrontation over access with landowners, the results of which could have a dramatic effect on future Mendip Caving.

I look forward to your support at the AGM on 17th May 1986 in the interests of the future of Mendip Caving.  This letter, which expresses my personal opinions, has been circulated at my own expense.

Yours sincerely, Alan Butcher