Video: How To Not Build Illegal Trails with Ben Cathro

by | May 8, 2021

Words: Ben Cathro
Photography: Innes Graham

Last year like so many others during the various pandemic lockdowns around the world, I wanted to do something constructive with my new found spare time. I had always wanted to build my own personal training track that I could use to prepare my bikes and my body for racing so building a track was the obvious choice. The fact that I had to produce some interesting episodes of the Pinkbike Privateer series while no races were happening may have also been a driving force. I was lucky enough to have excellent terrain nearby which meant a short on bike commute with my tools and packed lunch in compliance with Scottish lockdown rules. I’d been eyeing up this location for a while as I frequently rode other trails in the same forest and had been imagining all the features I could build while gazing at the natural shapes in the terrain.

Once I’d established with local builders the rules for trail construction in the forest, I dove into this project all guns blazing and maximum enthusiasm. I ditched my training regime, sacked off my other projects and started building. This was a full time job both figuratively and literally. I’d spend all day up on the hill planning things out, clearing branches, turfing grass, shaping features then come home exhausted to help my wife out with our new born. Rinse and repeat for 6 days a week with one day off to look after my wife and let my body recover. It was physically demanding but I couldn’t stop grinning to myself that I was getting to do something so cool as part of my job.

I did have a finite amount of time to get the track finished as unbelievably World Cup organisers had managed to schedule some events despite all the European countries strongly advising against travel. I only had just over a month to get it finished and film the now famous “Not A Race”. I was going to need a lot of help as the ground was really demanding to work with. Luckily, during the build I got a tonne of help from some generous locals. There were more volunteers than I can remember but Duncan Edwards, Barry Mason, Euan Thomson and Callum Foster in particular put in some big shifts. Thanks to all of you for your time. With the extra hands we just managed to get things finished on time and filmed the Pinkbike project for Episode 4 of the Privateer series.

With the build done and film project completed it might sound like everything went exactly to plan. Well, what you might not be able to tell in the videos is that I was crapping myself the whole time as I had found out the landowner was extremely unimpressed with my building shenanigans and was discussing the best course of action to punish my illegal actions. That’s right, it turns out I’d not researched things enough and had illegally built a trail on Forestry and Land Scotland’s (FLS) property. Not only that, I was hearing whispers that I had built the track through a medieval monument which can incur massive fines if it is protected. Suffice to say I was stressing the f**k out and did not know what was going to happen.

I approached some friends who work with an organisation called Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland (DMBiNS) to get some advice about how to best navigate this mess I’d got myself into. They’ve been working on the guidelines for trail building in Scotland for years and were amazingly helpful. They contacted and organised some on site meetings with the Regional Manager from FLS and their chief safety officer. During our inspection FLS requested some slight reroutes to avoid risk to other forest users, the removal of some wooden features and finally they told me that the medieval site was not protected so I wasn’t getting fined! I can not tell you the weight that was lifted off me after this meeting! To make sure the track is maintained we also agreed to bring the trail under the local Tayside Trail Association’s oversight. This give’s me an official way to report to the landowners on the condition of the track and how I’m maintaining it. Super easy and should keep everyone happy.

It’s always good to learn from your mistakes and if you can help others to avoid making the same mistakes then that’s all the better. I invested so much time and energy into the build and realistically, the trail could have been closed down without the interventions that happened. Building without the landowners permission is illegal – that is a fact!

If you are considering a build, please check out the guidance developed by DMBinS (Guidance) and members of the Scottish National Access Forum, you could save yourself a whole load of stress and possible criminal charges. I would also suggest contacting DMBinS for advice or finding your local Trail Association, who will know the area and will already have contact with the local land manager. If you’re in any other countries these guidelines will probably work too but make sure to check with local outdoor authorities. In short:-

• Permission. Permission. Permission. – Nothing is guaranteed until you get this sorted.
• Planning and Design – If you’re going to build something you might as well make a good job of it. Landowner’s will probably want to see you’re planned route as well so it’s worth your time.
• Build natural. – Discussions with landowners should specify acceptable and non acceptable materials and consider appropriate drainage.
• Avoid other user conflicts. – Trail entry and exit points are the main point of contention. Key things are low speed and good sight lines.
• Ongoing inspection and maintenance. – Training courses are available and check out your local trails association.

I hope you found this story informative or at least a little entertaining. ‘Till next time.

Forestry and Land Scotland –
Developing MTB In Scotland –
Innes Graham Photography –