Mountain biking in the Cairngorms has exploded in recent years, riders are seeking out more challenging and remote terrain to test their skills. While this has been beneficial for the Scottish mountain bike industry and local tourism, the environmental implications of this boom are somewhat unknown.
To help understand what impact mountain bikers are having, we investigate how aware local and visiting riders are of the increasing rare Capercaillie. A species that also favour the scots pine woodlands of the Cairngorms.
The Capercaillie is the largest member of the grouse family and has experienced a steady decline in the last century. With between 1000-2000 birds currently remaining in Scotland, 80% of these call the Cairngorms their home. A steady decline in numbers comes at a time when the Cairngorms is becoming an increasingly popular area for tourism.
An online survey was utilised to reach mountain bikers throughout Scotland and further afield. Online surveys proved highly successful as the mountain bike community is widespread with many different groups and no single unifying club. Publishing the survey via social media allowed more people to access it through established communities and groups on Facebook.
Stakeholder interviews were also used. These less formally structured interviews allowed for unidentified related topics to be discussed and included in the study.
Heat maps and segment data from Strava were employed. Strava is an outdoor activity tracking platform that consists of a mobile app and website. Users can track their rides, runs and hikes on a smartphone or other GPS device. The app records the route and times through sections of the route called "segments". This allowed us to collect data on the mountain bike trails in the Cairngorms from the past eleven years.
Two study area surrounded the popular tourist town of Aviemore were chosen. There are many forests consisting mainly of scots pine that feature informal mountain bike trails within easy cycling distance. These forests are also home to the Capercaillie.
Over 200 individuals completed the survey. Of this 64% were not local to the Cairngorms, with over 40% of riders using trails in the area multiple times each year. The trails in the area have been featured by online publications and videos over the past few years. These combined with a strong uptake on the use of Trailforks in Scotland have allowed more riders than ever the resources to access trails previously reserved for locals.
Local riders were much more aware of Capercaillies presence in the area, around 60% of locals knew that the species inhabited the forests they ride in. 50% of locals said they were already doing something to try and prevent disturbing Capercaillie while riding. Locals mentioned that they were avoiding specific trails or avoiding areas of forest entirely during breeding season (April to August), these changes in riding behaviour are largely unprompted. In comparison only around 20% of visiting riders were doing either of these.
A surprisingly large number of riders are already doing something to benefit Capercaillie. However, what are riders willing to do? Over 80% of riders would be happy to change the trails they rode within a forest to help the species. Over 70% would change the venue they ride entirely to benefit Capercaillie. Locals were still more willing to change their behaviour than visiting riders, but the difference was only 5%.
Communicating with the mountain bike community, both local and visiting riders was identified as an area that has seen little study. Riders favoured signage in carparks/trailheads and on the trails themselves, although locals were less keen on the latter. Social media posts were also identified as well received by the mountain bike community.
When stakeholders were interviewed only a few issues with mountain biking in the area were identified. The primary issue being that mountain bikers can travel much further into the forest than those on foot, reaching lesser-used trails where animals including Capercaillie are less used to humans. The issue of riders developing new trails was also brought up as mountain bikers are usually the only user group that does this. Although this is minimal in the area due to the small number of permanent residents. Potential solutions were also investigated, the principle that riders could stick to well-used trails during Capercaillie breeding season was well received by both stakeholders and mountain bikers.
Current mountain bike trails are being utilised regularly by both visitors and locals with visitors travelling to the area specifically to use the unofficial ‘natural’ trails on offer.
Locals are much more aware of Capercaillie's presence at the popular mountain biking sites in the Cairngorms, compared to visiting mountain bikers. Locals also currently exhibit behaviours that benefit Capercaillie, despite minimal education. Both locals and visitors are willing to change their actions to benefit Capercaillie, but require some form of education to ensure this is done appropriately.
Locals and visitors displayed slightly different preferences regarding how pro-conservation information should be communicated to the mountain bike community. Signage on trails and in car parks, alongside social media posts, were the preferred options for both groups. These combined with more hands-on activities for locals and more literature for visiting mountain bikers would prove effective.
There is a need for a better understanding of how the sport impacts the environment and, particularly, the species that share these same natural spaces.
Where to now?
Further study is required to identify the specific impact of mountain biking on Capercaillie flushing distances, breeding success and habitat. As well as the effects of unofficial mountain bike trails have on the environment in the Cairngorms.
Communication is key, this study identified that mountain bikers are willing to do their part. But ultimately, they need guidance. Basic signage has a proven track record, implementing this throughout the Cairngorms would go a long way. An increased social media presence, alongside more frequent articles and videos focussing on the environmental impact of mountain biking. As well as increasing the presence of conservation on mountain bike trail map websites such as Trailforks.
Read our full study here.
Planning on riding in the Aviemore area? The Badenoch and Strathspey Trail Association are already doing excellent work to protect both the environment and trails in the area. Drop them a donation on Trailforks or attend a dig day if you can, their cake is legendary!
Interested in Big Mountain helping with your project? We can provide rider surveys, feasibility studies, mountain bike trail consultancy, trail maintenance and more.
Contact Douglas by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.