In the context of increasing damage from cavers, leader systems appear to be an effective means of conservation for the more vulnerable caves. Experience of the effects of gating of caves on Mendip is reviewed. Education, although essential, cannot by itself be considered a solution to the conversation problem. As unfortunate as it may be some form of access restriction is the only way to protect the most fragile features.


By definition, a cave that is conserved is ‘preserved and kept from harm, decay or loss’.  No open and accessible cave on Mendip, or probably anywhere else in the country, conforms to this definition. The only cave that can truly be said to be conserved is one that has not been found. The next best conserved caves are those that are closed for some reason, although the time of closure is critical inasmuch as immeasurable damage may have already occurred. Caves not yet found or which are closed present no immediate problem, although their future will depend much on the attitudes of today and the extent to which these can be changed.

The point that conservation is directly related to access has been made time and time again. There are two critical factors: access restrictions, and amount of traffic. It would seem that the greater the restrictions and the lower the traffic, the better the degree of preservation. Many caves in the Mendip area demonstrate this.  For conservation to be put into practice there must first be a cave to conserve. In Mendip: the complete caves and a view of the hills (Barrington & Stanton 1977) some 460 cave sites to which a length could be attributed are listed. The ultimate failure of conservation is complete loss, and an analysis of caves found, and destroyed or filled, over the decades to 1979 (Price & Price 1980) gives a gloomy picture. At that time the 460 recorded caves represented 52km of passage. However, 73 caves, representing 2km had been lost. These losses comprise 16% of the total number of caves, and 3.8% of the total passage length. Caves completely destroyed by quarrying represent approximately 50% of the cave length lost, with the major proportion of this in Fairy Cave Quarry.  Once having succeeded in keeping a cave open, the ensuing problem is to preserve it in as near a natural state as possible. Since conservation is related to access, consideration will be given here to various sites within this context.

Show Caves

From the cavers’ point of view, show caves (Wookey Hole, Gough’s Cave and Cox’s Cave on Mendip) have the greatest restrictions, as access is seldom available to cavers. They do however have by far the largest number of visitors. Over the years all three caves have suffered extensively from wanton damage, destruction of natural features during pathway construction, algal growth on formations, and so on, and the deterioration continues. Most that was at risk in Wookey Hole was destroyed in the early days and the cave now relies very little on formations as an attraction. The two Cheddar show caves still contain a number of attractive formations, and destruction may well continue or even accelerate with the introduction of self guided tours. The concept of a show cave is good in conservation terms, but is unlikely to work where commercial interests are paramount.

Caves with Leader Systems

Unfortunately, there is little that can be done about the show caves unlike the rest where the management is in the hands of cavers. Anyone who has visited many of Mendip’s caves cannot logically dispute that the best conserved are those with leader systems. The most significant sites falling into this category are St Cuthbert’s Swallet, Reservoir Hole and Charterhouse Cave, and the currently closed Shatter and Withyhill Caves. While the leader systems continue, these caves are offered the best protection possible within certain limits. The responsibility for looking after the cave falls directly on the leader, and his authority and control over the party is critical. Most of the time the system works, but deterioration still occurs, albeit at a much slower rate. Leader systems have been introduced as a requirement of landowners, and/or for conservation reasons. Considerable criticism has been directed at them despite the obvious benefits, and regardless of how easy it is to obtain access. It is worth considering the caves mentioned above in more detail, since there are many differences between them, and specific problems relating to each.

Shatter Cave and Withyhill Cave have probably suffered more than the others although this has not obviously detracted from their superb beauty. Neither cave is of direct interest to the sporting caver, being of average difficulty, but both have been very popular due to the unusual density and quality of the formations. It is perhaps fortunate that both caves are currently closed and therefore safeguarded for the present, although both have been broken into at times and it is unknown what damage may have occurred whilst they were open.  Shatter Cave is in principle the least susceptible to damage, as its relatively large passage sizes make the formations less accessible. In the years immediately following the cave’s discovery there were few restrictions, and deterioration was rapid. Inadequate taping resulted in the muddying of formations, and extreme incidents included the destruction of the helictites in Erratic Rift and the sawing-off at the base of a pair of stalactites. With the introduction of a leader system, taped pathways, restricted access to parts of the cave, and a maximum party size of four, deterioration almost stopped.

At Withyhill Cave a leader system was introduced immediately after its discovery, but the nature of the cave, which consists primarily of narrow passages with formations always within easy reach, has meant a steady deterioration from the outset. An attempt to overcome the problem by reducing the party size to two plus leader, and only allowing one party underground at a time, only helped in slowing down the deterioration. Here the damage is directly related to the number of visitors, and there is no obvious solution to the problem. Withyhill Cave also suffers an additional problem in that ever since its passage was intercepted by quarrying, it has been a semiactive system, and flood water has no means of escape, causing mud to be deposited on the walls in the lower reaches. It is worrying that access to this cave is at present completely denied and there is no means of monitoring any damage resulting from flooding.

Of the remaining systems St Cuthbert’s Swallet contains some fine formations. This cave could have proved one of the biggest cave conservation problems in the area, in that being the second longest cave on Mendip it is of great sporting interest. Fortunately, deterioration has been fairly limited, as the formations on the main routes are usually in large passages and/or inaccessible. In fact, many of the best are in out-of-the-way places which are seldom visited. The complexity of the cave is such that most leaders do not even know the location of some of the best formations. The current leader system works well, although in a number of instances the taping is inadequate.

The leader system for Reservoir Hole receives considerable criticism from cavers, particularly because it is in the control of a single individual. Many have also questioned the need for such stringent control at this particular cave. In fact, the need arose partly as a landowner requirement, but whatever the reason the cave is a good example of conservation in practice, with the few formations and other features well preserved. It is worth noting here that additional protective measures have been taken such as handlines around formations, and constructed pathways. The compulsory use of these guarantees the safety of the features they were installed to protect and they demonstrate the benefits of employing such measures in certain instances.

The final cave to be considered here is Charterhouse Cave. This is a relatively recent discovery and the leader system was introduced immediately by the Charterhouse Caving Committee (now the Charterhouse Caving Company), solely for conservation reasons. Taping and other work was carried out underground, a very secure entrance gate was fitted before opening, and the party was restricted to three plus a leader. The objective is to preserve the cave in as near its original condition as possible, and this seems to be working.

One of the biggest problems with leader systems is the availability of leaders.  Fortunately the cases considered here have some flexibility in this respect in that there are ‘guest leaders’ from a number of clubs. This system works well and stems a great deal of criticism that would certainly otherwise be forthcoming. There are however a few sites where leaders are only available from the controlling club. There seems to be little justifiable reason for this from a conservation point of view.

Gated Caves

In addition to caves with leader systems, Mendip has many others that are gated and locked, and the area is often criticised for this fact. Unfortunately, landowner requirements dictate that this should be the case, with the added advantage of some very limited protection. In general, gated caves receive less traffic than those with no restrictions, partly due to the inconvenience of having to obtain the key. Since it is usually known who has borrowed keys it may be possible to point the finger should damage occur. The Charterhouse caves have an additional advantage in that there is a minimum age restriction.

It is impossible to consider all the gated caves of Mendip together since restrictions vary considerably from a cave with only one available key, to caves which have personal keys available to anyone. Most have little remaining or no conservation interest (although this was possibly different in the past), but there are some notable exceptions. G B Cavern is the obvious example: it is still one of the best decorated caves on Mendip although it is questionable how long it will remain so. Over the years there has been a phenomenal amount of destruction, and deterioration is continuing.  There seems to be little that can be done. This perhaps rather defeatist attitude was doubtless engendered at least in part by the author being told so in no uncertain terms what he could do with his suggestion, when he told a party who were walking on the formations in Bat Passage to get back on the correct side of the tape. It seems likely that the Ladder Dig Series will eventually go the same way as the rest of the cave, despite measures such as taking out the fixed ladder as was done a few years ago. There are a number of other rules that apply to G B Cavern, for example, no carbide, no novices, and the minimum age limit. There is also a restricted number of keys available through Charterhouse Caving Company clubs. Nonetheless, the cave suffered from numerous break-ins and the number of illegal keys was anyone’s guess, and all the rules were being broken. Was this conservation in practice?

Fortunately the situation at GB may be turning round. Recently the land was sold to the county Wildlife Trust. The Charterhouse Caving Committee was reformed into the Charterhouse Caving Company and a lease taken out on the caves following the production of a Cave Conservation Plan. The lock has been replaced with a high security type, clean-ups undertaken and fixed point photography for monitoring commenced. It is heartening to see positive action to reverse the trend of spiralling deterioration.  Fairy Cave/Hilliers Cave in Fairy Cave Quarry, before its closure received only a small proportion of the traffic G B Cavern, but nonetheless the deterioration was significant. Hilliers Cave has suffered considerably in recent years and is a cause for concern, but it was thought that Fairy Cave had little worth protecting. This however has been shown not to be the case. Fairy Cave has in fact been open since at least the 1880s, and an experimental clean-up showed that there was white stalagmite beneath the mud which has been spread about by nearly 100 years of traffic. A large-scale clean-up was undertaken, although of course there was no hope for those formations which were no longer there to be cleaned.

Unrestricted Caves

The largest category of Mendip caves, despite popular belief, are those with no restrictions other than perhaps physical difficulty. These receive by far the most traffic and, significantly, they have suffered the most. It is impossible to recount here the destruction that has occurred. Many a once fine cave no longer warrants a second look. Others are rapidly going the same way. Some, such as the Burrington caves, are arguably no longer worth preserving even if it were possible. Others such as Swildons Hole are rapidly deteriorating.

If one looks around on a Swildons Hole trip, it becomes very obvious how much damage has occurred, often in the most inaccessible places. Recently, huge chunks of stalagmite were broken off at the bottom end of Barnes Loop, which must have involved considerable time and effort on the part of the vandals. Stoke Lane Slocker may well eventually go the same way. Ten years ago few parties went beyond the Sump, now few do not. The consequential deterioration is obvious to anyone who has visited the cave over a period of several years. Manor Farm Swallet is another site that continues to suffer. The list is very long.

Despite the adverse experience with existing caves, new discoveries are not escaping damage. The new extensions in Eastwater Cave, West End Series, contain some fine formations, a feature previously unknown in the cave. Already these have suffered, despite taping and the natural access restrictions. There seems little hope for their future preservation.

In a quarry on another part of Mendip a short, well decorated cave was recently found. Appropriate care was taken on first entry. In a large chamber, a path was made and marked round one side to enable viewing of formations at the rear without crossing a marvellous mud floor. At the end of the main passage, boiler suits and boots were removed, through the need to avoid despoiling the stalagmite. A few months later the scene was disheartening, as other ‘cavers’ had walked across the mud floor in the chamber and ploughed straight past the stalagmite in the passage, causing extensive muddying and damage. A collection of stalagmite was also found near the entrance, presumably left for later removal. The only consolation, although arguably of little value, is that photographs were taken of the cave in its original state.

At another site diggers entered a new chamber which was well decorated with straw stalactites. Those ‘in the know’ were asked to keep the find quiet until steps could be taken to protect the stalactites. It may be questioned whether this is any longer necessary, since recent reports indicate that one of the diggers ploughed straight through the straw stalactites in a burst of over enthusiasm to reach what he thought to be a potential way on at the far side of the chamber.

Stanton (1982) recently remarked that: Human beings are not naturally cave conservationists ... It would be an intellectual effort for (a caver) to say ‘I like this place, therefore I will leave it unspoiled for others to enjoy.’

Essentially this sums up the problem. He further says that: ‘Conservation has to be learned and taught’.

This is undoubtedly true, but unfortunately it is not a simple matter. If the caving community consisted of only a relatively small group of people who had participated in the activity over many years, then it is probable that our caves would be much better preserved.

Unfortunately this is not the case as the sport has an exceptionally high turnover of participants, and at any given time numbers consist of a very high proportion of relative beginners. Generally it is this group that most needs to be educated, but the process is slow and laborious, and there is evidence of a certain amount of natural resistance to being dictated to. Cavers of many years’ standing have slowly built up a great respect for the cave environment, but newcomers are not generally disposed to take the longer-term view.

The Future

Thus education must play an important role, but by itself it cannot be considered a solution. It may slow down the rate of deterioration in the ‘open’ caves and hopefully convince people of the need for extreme measures to protect a small number of others by means of more severe restrictions. Unfortunately, there will always be some people it is not possible to reach, and some who will refuse to listen or who couldn’t care less. Therefore there seems to be no option but for the majority of cavers to suffer by accepting restrictions made necessary by the selfish few.

Those caves on Mendip with leader systems are protected in a manner that seems to be the best possible in current circumstances. Relaxation of the access restrictions could only lead to more rapid deterioration. It is possible that in some instances, work could be carried out underground to afford better protection to specific features. Careful consideration of such possibilities by those controlling access would be advantageous. Gating is also essential to access control. Unfortunately most of the gates on Mendip are totally inadequate, as has been demonstrated in the past by the number of successful break-ins. The only site which has not so far been broken into is Charterhouse Cave, where the extremely strong, well designed but expensive gate, although damaged, has kept the vandals out. It is obvious that for those caves where there is an established need to prevent free access, very secure gates along the lines of that at Charterhouse Cave are needed, and more time and money could profitably be devoted to this.

For most other caves there seems to be little that can be done physically to protect them, other than taping, which in many instances is inadequate or non-existent. Possible exceptions are G.B. Cavern and Stoke Lane Slocker, where it may be worthwhile giving consideration to affording them better protection, although there would be a natural and very strong resistance to any increase in access restrictions.

It is very easy to forget about conservation. The vast majority of cavers have not had the opportunity to see many Mendip caves as they were before degradation set in. They therefore do not miss what was once there. Fortunately for the current generation there is still a reasonable amount to see. In ten or twenty years’ time the situation may well be different. The number of new discoveries is slowing down and it is uncertain how many (if any) new caves will contain rewarding stalagmite scenery. Therefore, we have a moral obligation to preserve all existing caves to the best of our ability, and if this means the implementation of access restrictions, then through necessity, we must do so.


1. BARRINGTON., N & STANTON, W., 1977 Mendip: the complete caves and a view of the hills. Cheddar Valley Press, Cheddar 236 pp
2. PRICE, G. & PRICE, E. 1980 Some Mendip statistics. Jnl. Cerberus Spelaeological Society 10(5). 214-22
3. STANTON, W.1., 1982. Mendip – pressures on its caves and karst. Cave Science: Trans. Brit. Cave. Res. Assoc. 9(3) 176-83.

Graham Price