Ogof Draenen in South Wales has once again been plunged into an entrance-related controversy following a connection made to the surface from inside the cave. This leads to the main cave via a series of short pitches equipped with fixed ladders, and there is also a rope traverse and a free-hanging pitch to negotiate.
Rumours of a new entrance have been circulating for some time, and initial reports have now appeared in the BCA newsletter and the Cambrian Caving Council newsletter. However, what has not been made clear in either publication is that the surface connection was made without any consent from the landowner and the Pwll Du Cave Management Group (PDCMG), the body responsible for administering the access agreement to Ogof Draenen. The new entrance, named Twll Du (‘Black Hole’), is believed to be on land owned by Pwll Du Conservation Ltd, who also own the main entrance to the cave and the ever-contentious Drws Cefn entrance. In addition, there is a possibility that Twll Du could be on land scheduled as an ancient monument and if so, no statutory permissions were obtained prior to the connection being made.
The initial reports are keen to point out that the new entrance is on access land designated under the equally-contentious Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CroW), but despite the stance currently being taken by the BCA that the Act does apply to caving, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and Natural Resources Wales (NRW) do not accept that this Act grants any rights to cavers and, even if it did, the Act confers no digging rights either on the surface or underground, a point which the BCA does not contest.
The PDCMG’s licence agreement with the landowner prohibits the creation of any additional entrances to Ogof Draenen without the owner’s prior written consent, which was not given, nor was any approach made for permission. To meet their obligations under the licence, the PDCMG have informed the landowner of the new entrance and its location. The landowner has also been informed that PDCMG were not approached or informed of the existence of this new entrance until the information appeared in the social media. Talks are ongoing between the PDCMG and the landowner. The new entrance lies close to a surface track and potentially presents a risk to both livestock and walkers.
The report in the Cambrian Caving Council newsletter does not make any reference to the lack of prior permission, nor does it raise any potential conservation impact, which are notable omissions, especially as its own constitution, places conservation firmly at its heart and still respects a landowner’s right to grant or withhold access. A similar clause in the BCA’s constitution has now been removed following the recent ballot. However, the opening of a new entrance without permission clearly contravenes the BCA’s Minimal Impact Caving Guidelines for “New Cave or Extension Explorations” which states that “Modification of cave entrances and passages, including changing water levels in sumps or ducks and diversion of streams, should only be undertaken after all possible effects have been assessed and the appropriate permission obtained from the landowner. Any modifications must be the minimum required.” These guidelines go on to say: “The long term impact of any work and materials used must be considered. If the site is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest or a Scheduled Monument, a ‘Consent’ will also be required from the Statutory Conservation Body.” It is clear in this case that no such permissions or statutory consents have been obtained.
The opening of a new entrance without prior permissions and full impact assessments raises important issues of conservation, as well as matters of statutory compliance and adherence to acknowledged best practice. None of this is reflected in the reports by the BCA newsletter editor or the CCC Conservation/Access Officer. At a time when BCA is trying hard to improve standing of cavers in the eyes of the general public and government departments, this disregard of the organisations’ own best practice guidelines is hard to understand or condone.
The PDCMG have been thrown into new controversy not of their own making that once again threatens to sour relationships between cavers, the landowner and the statutory bodies. Surely it is time to start putting the long-term interests of the cave first, ahead of any caver-driven demand for quicker, easier access to the further reaches of one of the UK’s finest cave systems.