As hillwalking gains in popularity the paths that we take for granted are becoming increasingly eroded, creating unsightly scars and damaging fragile habitats. In the absence of Government investment, who'll pay to fix the problem? Dan Bailey joins Stuart Younie of Mountaineering Scotland on An Teallach, to see just how bad things can get, and to explore a possible solution.
Out in the hills, when are you most likely to think about the ground underfoot? A well-made trail can make things so easy that you might barely notice you're on it, or appreciate the landscaping effort that someone put in for your benefit. But find yourself at an eroded washout or a trampled bog-fest, and you'll definitely know about it. Assuming you're using one, paths - sound or crumbling, maintained or unmanaged - are a major feature of most walking days, the fundamental infrastructure of the hills. But do we tend to take them, and their upkeep, for granted?
Stuart Younie, CEO of Mountaineering Scotland, thinks so.
"Mountain paths may not be an eye-catching subject, but they are essential to many people's enjoyment of the hills" he tells me "and the quality of what you're walking on is integral to the experience. Yet we don't often talk about them."
Though they facilitate our access into the landscape, and help people, literally, stay on track, many trails were never planned or built, but have simply worn in organically over decades of use. And as the number of walkers increases and the elements take an ongoing toll, erosion has become not just an unsightly mess on scores of these hill paths, and an inconvenience to path users, but an issue affecting delicate upland habitats.
Erosion becomes normalised. We accept the poor state of the path and think that's just how it is. But of course it doesn't have to be
In Scotland, the situation is muddied, says Stuart, by the lack of an overall national mechanism for funding trail upkeep. In the bulk of the countryside that falls outside the two National Parks, estates run by conservation organisations or the rare enlightened private owner, arrangements for maintaining paths and paying for that work range from ad hoc to non-existent.
On a warm midweek day we've met up at Dundonnell to examine at first hand the problem of trail erosion on An Teallach. This formidable Wester Ross mountain - many would say the UK's greatest - is both a glaring example of path erosion at some of its worst, and a potential model for how things might be better managed in future, as the first target for It's Up to Us, a fundraising campaign run by Mountaineering Scotland and the Outdoor Access Trust for Scotland. While the initial effort is directed at An Teallach, the hope is that progress made here may point to a longer term answer to path erosion elsewhere.
Stuart is keen to show me how bad things can get on the well-trodden route up the northwest side of the An Teallach massif from Dundonnell. If I've been this way before then it's too long ago to remember; but as the easiest and most direct access to the two Munros, it inevitably suffers from heavy wear and tear. If you didn't want to tackle the exciting scramble around the Corrag Bhuidhe pinnacles, this is the way you'd probably come instead. That adds up to a lot of feet, trampling grass and the soft peaty soil.
It's not an auspicious start, the trail entrance unmarked and almost hidden by roadside shrubs. Pushing through, we shoulder our packs and get cracking on the long, steady ascent, winding up among sandstone bluffs with a breezy view of Dundonnell's pastures and out over Little Loch Broom.
Initially the going seems unremarkable - wet and worn, if no more so than most Munro routes. But soon we reach the first washout. Here the peat on either side is gouged out, the surface has deteriorated into rubble and the narrow footpath has widened into more of a walkers' motorway.
"When the vegetation is worn down to exposed soil, the elements quickly wash it away, leaving all this loose rock" explains Stuart. "The scar channels water runoff, steadily deepening and making things progressively worse."
We're here after a wet spell, and the route in places more resembles streambed than path. It's no fun to walk on, and we find ourselves unconsciously gravitating to the edges, where the ground still offers a reasonable footing. This is how erosion spreads outwards, says Stuart.
Outdoor businesses are profiting from the popularity of walking; but the weight of numbers is having an impact. If a few large brands got involved, that would make an enormous difference
"Once the surface has turned to rubble or a muddy mess, people naturally walk to the sides. Instead of confining the footfall to a defined line, the path will gradually broaden until it can be many metres wide. The broader it gets, the more damage we're doing to fragile upland vegetation."
"Then it becomes normalised. We accept the poor state of the path and think that's just how it is. But of course it doesn't have to be that way."
Above the rocky lower slopes we enter the green, boggy scoop of Coire a' Mhuilinn. Here, heavy use and copious west coast rain have brought erosion to an eye-opening level, the soft peat scored into waist-deep water channels and collapsing trenches. No longer a path, more a gorge in the making or a building site gone wrong, the original line is impossible to follow, and new trails braid out to either side. Without intervention this carnage would just keep creeping over the hillside. It's easy here to see why An Teallach was chosen as an attention-grabbing test case by the team behind It's Up to Us. The damage clearly has to be addressed, and in a way that will prevent it from simply recurring. That's where the path builders come in.
Constructing a walkable, well-drained, long-lasting trail, designed in sympathy with its surroundings, is both hard manual labour and highly skilled, requiring teams of specialist contractors willing to work in all weathers. Materials have to be sourced from the locality, or flown in by helicopter - perhaps you've seen the huge bags of rocks deposited in unlikely spots where work is in progress elsewhere. Understandably, path building does not come cheap. Each metre of stone pitching costs around £90 - £100, Stuart says, plus more for ditches and drains. And much like painting the Forth Bridge it'll never be finished, as ongoing maintenance will always be needed.
Boosted by a £100,000 grant from the Scottish Mountaineering Trust, and donations from the public and businesses, It's Up to Us is about halfway to reaching its initial fundraising target of £300,000. But this barely scratches the surface of the need out there.
"Since lockdown the number of people visiting the hills has really grown" says Stuart.
"This is great to see. Hillwalking is so good for people on so many levels, and of course we have these amazing access rights in Scotland that help us enjoy the outdoors. But the weight of numbers is high, we are all having an impact on the ground, and investment to manage this is minimal. Outside National Parks there is no Government funding. So where is the money to come from?"
The aim of It's Up to Us is to encourage the outdoor community - bikers, climbers and mountaineers as much as walkers - to view hill paths as a shared resource, and one that we should perhaps all be willing to contribute towards.
"It is important that this is not seen as a tax on access" says Stuart. "We recognise that during a cost of living crisis the idea of donating to a footpath appeal may be a hard sell. But though it is free to each of us, our access does come at a cost."
Longer term, the hope is that this informal user-pays model might become embedded within the hill-going community. If every walker, climber and outdoor business made a small annual contribution to path upkeep, Scotland's network of hill trails could be put on a firmer footing for the future.
Of course, for it to become viable this potential new model for funding will need buy-in not just from individuals, but companies. From accommodation providers to gear manufacturers, instructors to the outdoor media, businesses across the outdoor and tourism sectors are profiting from the increased popularity of walking and climbing in Scotland. Acknowledging this, Stuart is keen to encourage firms to give something towards protecting the environment and resource that underpins their success.
"Cotswold Outdoor have come on board as a main sponsor, and we've had support from some smaller businesses. If even a handful of other large brands got involved as part of their efforts towards corporate social responsibility and sustainability, that would make an enormous difference to the campaign" he suggests.
Up on top of Bidein a' Ghlas Thuill the clag is in, and the phenomenal jagged skyline of the Corrag Bhuidhe pinnacles invisible in the murk. We hang around in vain waiting for things to lift. A traverse of the ridge in dank cloud is not high on our shared wish list, and having already seen what we set out to we head back down the way we came, adding our footprints for a second time to the ragged and rutted Dundonnell trail.
Work to restore this battered route has now started, and should transform people's enjoyment of it. But this may be just the beginning. With Scotland's Munros becoming popular as never before, hill paths across the country are taking a hammering from the combined forces of footfall and rainfall. An Teallach may be a headline example of path erosion, but it's by no means an isolated case. Left unattended, busy routes everywhere will continue to deteriorate. In the absence of Government backing or EU money to support the upkeep of hill paths, how will this vital outdoor infrastructure be maintained? Perhaps it really is up to us.
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