Regular readers will know of my fondness for cycling in the New Forest. This time last year, when we were in lockdown and only allowed to exercise ‘locally’, I remember writing a column agonising over whether I could head down there or not for an isolated, solo ride.

If I’d known then that Downing Street was inviting all and sundry to boozy BYOB parties, I might not have tortured myself so much.

The New Forest is back in the news at the moment over attempts to ban electric bikes from its cycle trails.

The decision-making body for this is the somewhat arcane Verderers Court, a sort of fancy Magistrates Court with jurisdiction over certain rights in the Forest. It’s made up of ten members: five elected by New Forest Commoners, and five more appointed by various bodies such as the Forestry Commission and Natural England. The chair of the court, or Official Verderer (currently Lord Manners) is appointed by the Queen.

It is the Verderers who have the power to grant access to the New Forest’s network of off-road gravel tracks. There are about 300 miles of these, though cyclists only have permission to cycle on about a third.

Recently, Forestry England (which manages the New Forest) applied for a three-year extension of access to these tracks, but the Verderers Court only gave twelve months permission, demanding more action to stop cyclists wandering off the agreed paths: one Verderer talked of ‘gangs of hardcore bikers … disturbing the peace and cutting up the Forest.’

At the same time, another pressure group, the New Forest Equestrian Association (NFEA), is leading a campaign to ban e-bikes from the tracks. Caroline Scott, the group’s chair, told website ebiketips that, ‘Permitting motorisation per se in the forest is punching a hole in the legal armour of protection. After e-bikes, it is a small step then to quad bikes and scramble bikes.’

I’m not sure this thin-end-of-the-wedge argument holds. Firstly, many people who use electric bikes are not hell-raising hardcore bikers, but older cyclists or those using them for health reasons. Similarly, rather than speeding dangerously through the Forest, such bikes have a maximum speed of 15.5mph, after which the motor cuts out.

The number of electric bikes being bought in the UK has risen sharply in the last few years. In 2020, 170,000 electric bikes were sold in the UK, a 70 per cent rise on the previous year, and figures continue to grow.

That is a good thing for all sorts of reasons – more people cycling reduces carbon footprints and commuting congestion, while improving people’s health at the same time.

Rather than banning e-bikes, the New Forest should be welcoming and supporting this quiet revolution.