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The Problems of Cave Conservation & Access and the Encouragement & Control of Novices from Non Caving Club Organisations

Ian Calder sends in this article in response to the recent one on the future of club caving.  He points out that there is a large measure of agreement and says that 'any comments would be gratefully appreciated'.

There is no doubt that, at the present time, there is an ever increasing number of people entering caves in this country on caving trips, and consequently there is a large number of people descending a cave for the first time.  It is also becoming more evident that especially (but not only) in open access caves, a lot of unnecessary and permanent damage is being done, as well as an awful lot of temporary spoiling in the form of leaving litter, carbide and dirtying formations.  Finally, it also appears that there is an increase in call-outs for Rescue Organisations, especially from non-caving club organisations such as scouts, schools youth clubs and so on.

The first point to decide is to what extent there is a link up between these three developments.  It seems reasonable, and in many ways inevitable that the more a cave is visited the more likely it is to be damaged or destroyed.  Indeed, any visitor is almost bound to move stones, leave footprints (even digging equipment and fuse wires) touch formations etc. and thereby damage the natural state of the cave.  Potentially, however, I am sure that the novice caver is more likely to do damage than the experienced club caver for the novice is more likely to move awkwardly and stumble over formations; miss tapes marking off grottos; leave litter and carbide behind etc.  One has only to consider the difference between Swildons Hole and St. Cuthbert’s Swallet, the first with open access and frequently visited by novice or semi-novice cavers, and the second gated and operated on a leader system which tries to exclude novices from the cave.  However cavers ought to be reminded of the damage which has been done in gated caves like St. Cuthbert’s, Shatter Cave and Balch Cave before laying all the blame on novice cavers.  Perhaps each caving club ought to run its own programme for its novice members to try to ensure that these members develop a conserving, exploratory and considerate approach to caving rather than a competitive approach (on the increase at the moment) which makes them bash on regardless of people or formations fun order to achieve their objective.  It seems reasonable to say, then, that the more a cave is visited the more it will be damaged and the more it is visited by novices to a greater extent it will be further damaged.  One can only assume therefore that if novices or non club cavers were prevented from entering caves, then such caves would either be preserved for a longer period or be considerably less polluted.  Whether this be true of all caves is debatable, for example - Porth-yr-Ogof, Goatchurch Cavern or Eglwys Faen all seem to me to be caves where no more damage could really be done and where club cavers are as a result not worried about their open access.  On the other hand, there are still a number of caves such as Swildons or Little Neath, which still have a great deal worth preserving and which also have open access.  If we wish to preserve the features which are left in such caves, it seems that some sort of limited access must exist.  This implies gating such caves unless there is a particularly hazardous entrance as may be found in Little Neath Cave or Eastwater Cavern which would, in fact, prohibit visits by novice cavers.  Such caves are few, and even these may be argued not to have really effective barriers and we are therefore left with gating as the only effective system of control. Two main problems now arise:-

1.                    Who or what is going to control the access to gated caves?

2.                    To what extent will non caving club organisations be able to enter them?

At the present time we have a National Caving association and a number of regional bodies formed in the main to present a united front to fight for access rights to some of the more important caves, especially in Yorkshire.  At first sight it would seem reasonable that such a national body should control the arrangements for all gated caves so that there would be one organisation fighting both for access rights and for the interests of caving in general.  This, however, could lead to abuse, and in this connection it is interesting to note that the Northern Council is denying access to caving clubs who will not join them.  Is this in the interests of caving?  Are they not trying to bring cavers into line, as it were rather than fostering the best interests of the caving fraternity?  The N.C.A. has the power of distributing government grants and thus there is a danger of sponsoring some aspects or clubs more than others and ultimately of being able to dictate to caving clubs.  It is interesting to note that, in the last allocation of money, the British Association of Caving Instructors (B.A.C.I.) received £200 while the Southern Council received £10.  This surely means that the N.C.A. supports and wishes to promote the work being done by B.A.C.I., who are themselves strongly promoting their scheme, especially amongst Local Education Authorities for teachers and youth workers. Like the Mountain Leadership Certificate is now, the B.A.C.I's certificate will soon be a requirement for teachers and youth workers (whether they be cavers or not) in order to take non club caving trips.

So much for the present situation, but let us consider how this could progress.  If we have a national body, it is bound to be the body consulted by the Department of Education and Science; but it could also become the body empowered by government, or having government backing, to bring every cave in the country under its control.  From this position, the easiest way to administer such control would be to demand that every trip was led by someone with a certificate in Cave Leadership.  Hence I foresee regimented caving being dictated by some remote body AND I CONTEND THAT THIS IS WHAT THE CAVING WORLD IS LEAVING ITSELF WIDE OPEN TO.  I would also contend that even the administration of gated caves on a regional basis would be open to some sort of misuse.  WE MUST REALISE THE POSSIBLE OUTCOMES BEFORE WE GIVE POWER TO SUCH BODIES, FOR AFTERWARDS IT MAY BE TOO LATE.

The sort of system of control I would advocate would be one by which particular clubs administer particular caves with other bona-fide clubs having either a key or some form of easy access to the caves.  The onus would then be on the club involved to run its cave or caves the way it thought best.  This way, there would be little room for power politics and a far greater chance of a club being able to develop good relations and agreements with land owners. This way, a much better feeling would exist between cavers and landowners from which only good would come. The only real problem would concern novices.  If they were from a caving club then obviously that club would be responsible for that trip, but what about trips from non caving club organisations? There seem to be three possibilities. (1) You ban them and thereby cut down the number of novice cavers considerably.  (2) You allow such trips if the person leading is a member of a club holding a key to that particular cave.  However, being a good caver may not ensure being a good leader of novice trips.  For example, cave divers or hard sporting cavers may not be the best people to run such trips.  Experience may not of itself make a good leader, since experience may be good or bad.  We may remember that Einstein could not teach elementary physics and therefore we must not fall into the trap of thinking that the leader needs only to be experienced. (3) You allow such trips if you know that the adults in charge are competent and will conduct the trip in every way as well as it would be conducted if it were a novice club trip - that is, with interest, safety, exploration and conservation being the factors involved. The problem is how one assesses this to be the case.

Whether such trips are going round easy, un-gated caves such as Goatchurch or Eglws Faen, or not, what qualities would we expect from the leader or organiser of such a trip?  I believe there are basically three factors involved.  (1) That the person in charge should know a fair bit about caves in general and have the sort of approach to caving that I have already mentioned.  (2) The person should know the various techniques involved in caving and in the particular cave he is intending to use and (3) the person concerned should be a good leader.  The second factor and much of the third can be learned over a period of time and if necessary by going on courses specifically for this purpose.  The third factor, and having the right approach is extremely important and, as most people will agree, impossible to assess in a course type situation.  However, a teacher will have spent at least four of five years learning about and being with young people and, I would suggest, is the best sort of qualified person to have these vital qualities.  Ideally, then, the person in charge of such trips should be a teacher and either an experienced caver or have spent some time interested in caving and been on some recognised course where he could learn the relevant techniques.  Would cavers and Local Education Authorities be prepared to accept the sort of proposals I have just mentioned?

Whatever happens, the number of people visiting caves is going to increase.  Such a scheme as I have outlined would have several advantages. Firstly, responsible and interested people would be in charge of such trips, leading to safer caving and some possibility of keeping our caves in a better condition.  Secondly, such trips could only take place in certain suitable caves.  Thirdly there would be no need for any sort of national body to administer a certificate or have any other such power thus halting the present advance towards regimented caving.  Finally, courses for teachers would have to be run in conjunction with the local caving clubs.  Would caving clubs be prepared to help caving in this way?  If so, the burden of responsibility would lie fairly and squarely with Local Education Authorities and could not be shelved behind the stalactite curtain of a certificate which NEITHER ENSURES ACCIDENT FREE TRIPS NOR AN EDUCATIONAL APPROACH TO CAVING.

To summarise, one has first to decide between open access and conservation.  Is gated or restricted access too high a price to pay for conservation?  If so, can we do any thing to educate people to go to open access caves and treat them in a reasonable and conserving way? If not - we have all the ensuing problems of restricted access - to whom it is restricted and who is going to do the actual restriction.  A careful and detailed study must be made here to ensure that the answers to these questions do not interfere with the spirit of caving as an exploring science and as an interest which brings together people from all walks of life.

Editor's Note: Well, I did ask for contributions on the subject!  Apart from going down caves, the problem of how we manage to preserve our way of life on Mendip is the most important thing cavers can think about.  It is interesting to see how much general agreement there is between this article; that published recently in the Wessex Journal; my recent one on this subject, and what went on at the recent meeting of the Southern Council.  Given luck and good management, there seems a good chance that cavers on Mendip have woken up to the threats them and are prepared to act together - with a bit and take - to meet them.

For the benefit of Ian and others, the problem of what to do about the increasing requirement from Local Education Authorities for caving trips for novices was raised by the Wessex Cave Club in their Journal, and their proposal for a scheme based on the caving clubs was put to the C.S.C.C.

A booklet on safety recently issued by the Department of Education and Science mentions the BA.C.I. Certificate in its section on caving, and it was pointed out by some of the educationalists present that although the booklet did not suggest that this was the ONLY qualification; because no other alternative was quoted, an impression would be formed by its readers that the B.A.C.I. were the only body which could or would grant some sort of cachet in this field.  The acceptance of the Wessex scheme by the Southern Council would have the advantage of getting this scheme into future issues of the booklet as an alternative based on existing caving clubs.

The Southern Council were in favour of this basic idea, but thought that the alternative scheme would carry more weight as a Southern Council scheme rather than one from a particular club. The scheme is at present being looked into by a small committee who will report to the next meeting of the C.S.C.C. at which, hopefully, the scheme will be passed.  Local Education Authorities will then be able to deal with caving clubs on a cooperative basis in the sort of manner that Ian suggests.

While we don't want to bore members with too much of this sort of thing in the B.B., it must be emphasised that the present time is one in which Mendip cavers are faced with a number of problems which can be solved but which, if left to solve themselves, will result in a state of affairs which will not suit the vast majority of cavers. It is thus very important that the B.B. plays its part in keeping these matters in front of its readers because otherwise, the days of the B.B. and the B.E.C. itself could well be numbered.