Statement from the Association of British and Irish Showcaves.
The Association of British and Irish Showcaves ( ABIS ) is the lead body representing all the showcaves in Britain and Ireland. At their recent AGM in Ireland it was unanimously agreed that any alteration to the existing interpretation of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW), so as to provide uncontrolled access to caves, as is being sought by the British Caving Association ( BCA ), would be detrimental to cave conservation, cave archaeology, and public safety.
The general public, if told that they have a ‘right’ to enter any cave on Access Land could be putting themselves in danger. They would not have the expertise, and experience that cavers build up over the years when exploring the underground environment.
Furthermore, cavers have well established procedures for leaving word of where they have gone caving, and their expected time of return so that in the unlikely event that they run into trouble, cave rescue volunteers can be alerted, and reach the scene quickly. It could be a very different situation in the event of an inexperienced family that is somewhere in a ‘wild cave,’ but the relatives do not have any further details as to where.
Another major point of concern to ABIS relates to the conservation and protection of the fragile cave environment. Cavers know that cave formations can take tens of thousands of years to form, and that caves cannot recover from damage. Permanent damage can be done just by just touching fragile stalactites. Members of the general public have removed formations from caves as trophies of their underground adventure.
Again, from the conservation point of view, if ‘everyone’ is given the ‘right to enter’ many wild caves, as BCA is seeking, what will the general public’s reaction be if they encounter bats in a cave? If curious they will probably disturb them, even if only by accident, or worse still they might encourage them to fly!
Experienced cavers know how to act in such circumstances, however, the general public would not have this knowledge.
Two detailed meetings have taken place between officials from BCA and ABIS to try to resolve the difference of opinions regarding the opening up of a substantial number of wild caves to the general public. However, it was not possible to reconcile the different points of view represented by both parties at these meetings.
It was also concerning to learn that a sum of up to £2000 had already been allocated to the CRoW Liaison Officer for expenses in pursuit of the BCA intentions, despite ongoing discussions with ABIS.
It is clear that BCA intend to pursue its aims whether or not this causes any damage to landowner relations. Despite BCA suggesting that damage to landowner relations is not occurring, the strength of feelings among ABIS members demonstrates that this is not the case.
The wording on the recent BCA referendum paper asked “Should BCA, on your behalf, campaign for The Countryside and Rights of Way Act to apply to going underground?”. Whilst a majority of cavers who voted were in favour, a very substantial minority voted against and cavers themselves remain bitterly divided on the issue. ABIS feels strongly that the stance taken by BCA does not reflect the views of a substantial minority of their membership.
Some members of ABIS are also members of BCA, and a point was later made that the BCA constitution recognises that landowners have a right ‘to grant or deny access to cavers’ and so it would seem that the constitution needs altering in order to legitimise BCA’s position.
It was clear from the two meetings that a caver is seeking to either apply for judicial review, or to attempt to take the environmental bodies to court to resolve this issue. (A number of landowners are very concerned with the possible effect of any judicial review over access to caves on their land.)
The damage to the many excellent relationships that have been built up over years between cavers, landowners, and showcave owners are likely to be set back by any such court action. Showcave owners realise that it is only certain cavers that appear to be instrumental in risking damaging the relationship between showcaves, and cavers.
At the two meetings it was repeatedly stressed by the showcave representatives that they want to maintain a good relationship with cavers so that all can benefit from a partnership in helping to conserve Britain’s unique underground environment.
As there was, sadly, no ‘meeting of minds’ following these talks, ABIS feels that they have to try to make a stand, and support those who do not wish to see the good relationships built up over so many years being destroyed by an alteration to the interpretation of the CRoW Act that will lead to caves being damaged, and the general public being put at risk.
Hence, it was agreed at a general meeting of ABIS to recommend to all showcave members that on Friday the 3rd June 2016, all showcaves in England and Wales should be closed to cavers for that day.
The above resolution was passed at the ABIS meeting with deep regret by ABIS members, but the repercussions outlined above are considered so serious that a symbolic gesture had to be taken.
ABIS hopes that the many cavers who do not support the action being taken by BCA will realise that ABIS had few options available to reflect their concerns after the recent talks failed.
Ashford Price, ABIS Liaison Officer.
‘Dan Yr Ogof’ -The National Showcaves Centre for Wales.