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Letter re SSSI

Horfield, Bristol

Dear Sir,

SSSI’s on the Mendip Hills, Somerset

In the Course of an interesting evening spent at Hunters' lodge Inn, Priddy, on 22/5/86, I was acquainted with the broad aspects of the current turmoil surrounding the issue to landowners of a document or letter setting out conditions and qualifications regarding agricultural and other activities which might be deemed by the Nature Conservancy Council to threaten the subterranean Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Without having seen the N.C.C. letter I am unable to comment upon it.  It seems to have irritated the farming community.  In particular, according to Mr. Roger Dors of Hunters' Lodge Inn, it may viewed  as unwarranted interference with the" legal rights of freeholders. "

Now I can well understand Mr. Dors' personal concern, for the follow reasons:

1)                  The only significant cave system so far known to exist under Mr. Dors' land is HUNTER’S HOLE, a straightforward, moderately important site which appears to be of no more scientific value than hundreds of other minor caves and potholes in the British Isles.  There is nothing exceptional about HUNTER’S HOLE and one is frankly puzzled by the decision to list it as an SSSI.

2)                  Even when considered as a "sporting/leisure" site, HUNTER’S HOLE, whilst not irrelevant, is as noted above of no more than moderate importance.  Its loss as a caving place, if Mr. Dors were to destroy it in some way, whilst regrettable, would not, I think, create a furore throughout the Mendip caving or scientific fraternity.

3)                  Mr. Dors is in a unique position in respect of Mendip caving information and rapport. He has been what cavers would call an exemplary cave owner, he is not likely to pollute HUNTERS' HOLE by draining or tipping waste into it, neither will he be inclined to dispose of used motor vehicles or other trash (something which cannot be said of Bristol Waterworks Company, for example, or some other cave-owners), in the doline which constitutes the entrance.

Nevertheless, there are dismaying aspects of the Mendip "reaction" to NCC strictures. "These deserve mention, especially as the major caving clubs on the Mendip Hills are, overtly, taking the side of the landowners.  The decision of the caving clubs to do so is probably a mistake.

A designated Site of Special Scientific Interest should be what it purports to be - something of outstanding importance biologically, geomorphologically, whatever. (If the NCC has designated sites on the basis of ill-informed non-specialist opinion, then the NCC is either foolish or under-staffed - they'd probably claim the latter, with some justification).  Granted that an SSSI is correctly designated, then the interests of the landowner must be subordinate to the interests of the community, notwithstanding personal disadvantage.  A correctly designated SSSI represents, often, not merely a preservable curio or asset, but something unknown elsewhere something irreplaceable.  The SSSI is the jewel in the conservational crown, if such analogy be permitted.  It is imperative that SSSI designation be accurate in this respect; and it is essential that protection to the SSSIs and their contents be provided and where necessary enforced.  Any action by the Nature Conservancy Council to these ends has to be welcomed, if not by all formers and owners then at least by those of us who regard the surviving pockets of British wilderness as valuable.  I had assumed that cavers were of similar persuasion.

My experience of landowners on the Mendip Hills suggests to me that they are sympathetic to responsible visitors/trespassers and to that which exists on or under the land.  This is not so everywhere.  There have been serious transgressions of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981: a large number of SSSIs have been lost and damaged. Magistrates have declined, for the most part, to convict offenders (mostly members of the farming community or unscrupulous developers such as at Udden's Heath in Dorset).  It became quite clear during the period 1981-'84 that loopholes in the Act's provisions required urgently to be closed.  This has been done.  The matter of enforcement (since most agricultural development is NOT covered by the planning legislation) remains.  It would be unwise to assume that the problems have been solved.  If the NCC is seen as "heavy-handed", well, what would you wish it to be?  Would you wish it to present a limp facade in the face, very possibly, of the bulldozers?  The fact that this consideration does not apply right at this moment at, say, Eastwater or Swildons, is no future guarantee.  There has to be a generally acceptable mechanism for the regulation of development, be it in connection with agriculture or anything else; this, I am convinced, is what the NCC seeks.  I can understand the reluctance of responsible landowners to calmly accept an implied criticism of their methods, or en intrusion upon their legal rights; had NCC been more expert in their selection of sites (if the NCC is responsible - something which has not been clarified to my satisfaction, for one) some difficulties might have been avoided.  If, as seems likely to me, the NCC was guided by caving "expertise" which in the event proved fallible, then it is high time they consulted experts whom they can trust.  But that is not the whole story, for, no doubt, there will always be a tendency to resist that which is intended to preserve the non-profitable !

The decision taken by, or on behalf of, the caving community, albeit a pragmatism well-appreciated by those who live on the Mendip Hills, is dubious in this: that it results directly from the power of a landowner to refuse access to a cave.  In general, such power is, on Mendip, never exercised.  The landowners and tenant farmers controlling the major sites are amenable to reasonable requests for access - indeed, I have thought for many years that they were more amenable than caving clubs and councils, on balance.  Certainly I have had very few problems, even holding the views which I do, except where a caving organisation was involved.  I do not say that is because caving interests are involved there might have been access worries anyway owing, say, to the pressure of numbers of caving parties - but it's how I've found it.  I always, where possible, prefer to deal with the owner of the land or cave.  It is much more simple and does not lead to aggression.  There are, however, instances in which it becomes a moral obligation to understand what is at stake; the short-term benefits must not be permitted to outweigh the possibility that natural habitats will be destroyed or so reduced as to be worthless.  It is, in part, the duty of NCC and their like to ensure this.  It is also our duty as cavers and as farmers. We should all think on that.

yours etc

(Bob Lewis) WCC; SVCC.