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Upland Footpath Erosion - Considerations for Group Leaders

Hill walking is one of Britain’s most popular past times.  Authorities estimate that well over 350,000 people walk up to the summit of Snowdon each year – that’s more than 950 people each day! 

 

It’s not surprising therefore that the delicate upland environment is showing signs of erosion.

 

However, how appropriate is it to build a staircase all the way to the top of Britain’s more popular hills?  Many would argue that the authorities’ actions were heavy handed in installing metal encased ‘gabions’ near the top of the Pyg Track, together with other artificial culverts to reduce further erosion of the hillside.  But what action is appropriate?  It can’t be right to just sit back and let nature and the trample of the latest vibrams take their toll.


 

Pitfalls of Footpaths

A number of criticisms are often levelled at the approach taken to maintain upland footpaths and we need to consider these before we go out and make wide scale alterations to the natural environment of the British hills, for example:

 

·         Will improving the path cause its use to increase?

 

This is possible, but history has demonstrated (as in the case of Ben Lawers) that the provision of car parks, information centres, leaflets etc. is much more likely to increase the use of footpaths into the hills.  And anyway, shouldn’t we be encouraging others to experience the great outdoors?  Isn’t that how we got into it?

 

·         Will a well maintained path cause ill-equipped and inexperienced walkers to venture further than they can safely cope with?

 

This is also possible, but ill-equipped people will always be tempted to push their limits; how often have we all been approached by people on the summit plateau of the Ben trying to find their way to the summit, or back off again, in a complete white out and without a compass?

 

But the maintenance of upland paths should be used as an opportunity to improve the environment, educate people and cater for the number of people who want to travel through the hills.  However, in doing so care ought to be taken to retain any natural barriers on the early stages of a walk, e.g. rock steps or streams, to give an idea of the conditions that are likely to be experienced further up the hill.

 

·         Will the improvements detract from the otherwise ‘wild’ nature of the environment?

 

This may also be true, but by careful management of upland path maintenance, which focuses on only the most popular and therefore badly affected areas, we should still be able to maintain the ‘getting away from it all’ atmosphere that we strive to experience when we venture into the hills.

 

Footpath Maintenance and Construction

 


 

In order to deal with issues such as these, the British Upland Footpath Trust (BUFT) (http://users.pandora.be/quarsan/trails/buft2.html) was established in 1994 by a number of outdoor and conservation bodies, including the British Mountaineering Council and the Ramblers Association.  BUFT has established objectives, which include:

·         Ensuring that only local materials are used (e.g. Cairngorm granite slabs would look very unnatural in the sandstone environment of the Brecon Beacons)

·         Ensuring that work is undertaken to a high standard – extensive training is available to those managing footpath maintenance projects

·         Techniques used should protect vegetation and any plants replaced should be indigenous to the area

·         Maintenance should be unobtrusive and fit for purpose, i.e. it’s only a footpath not a major trunk road

·         Maintenance projects should have a minimal impact approach and action should be taken only where necessary - a ‘drip feed’/ ‘little and often’ type approach should be taken rather than wide scale improvement

·         The more remote the path the more stringently the objectives should be followed

·         Paths should not be of a nature which encourage ill-equipped walkers to follow them into the hills, where they are likely to encounter less easily negotiable paths – perhaps meaning that man made paths should not be visible from car parks/roads

·         Paths should not be constructed to be uniform e.g. no staircases

 


 

As regular users of British upland paths, we all have a responsibility to reduce impact upon the hills.  So, there are a number of things that we can do, including:

·         Choosing a route that’s ‘off the beaten track’ and not contributing to existing erosion problems on popular routes

·         Encouraging everyone in the group to stick to the recognised path and not walking on the often softer ground on either side, which results in the commonly found vicious circle of path widening

·         Considering these issues carefully before participating in ‘mass sponsored walks’ for charity.  Many view these events as a perfect opportunity to raise money for a good cause.  However, there is a strong argument that they are costing other charities, such as the National Trust, a lot of money in consequential footpath maintenance.

·         Participate in work to maintain upland footpaths, perhaps on a National Trust ‘Working Holiday’: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-trust/w-volunteering/w-workingholidays.htm.  (For anyone interested in attending one of these holidays, I can recommend them as offering a very cheap alternative holiday, allowing an opportunity to spend time in the hills while putting something back into the environment that we all enjoy so much.)

 
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