Footpath and Track Restoration Work

Having been asked to prepare an update on all things mountain-footpath related within the National Trust for Scotland, it immediately became apparent that any of this would surely have to be placed within the context of the footpath industry as a whole. A great deal of upheaval is going on involving access management in Scotland at the moment, and simultaneously NTS has been managing a number of mountain path projects, and the ones I deal directly with are at Mar Lodge Estate and Glencoe.

On first scan of the above paragraph the words "footpath industry" really stand out. When I first got involved in this work, it was project based, and workers were recruited almost entirely from conservation volunteers. We have gone from 5 keen souls in a wee blue van covering the whole of Scotland to an industry with around 100 workers since the late 1980's, and workers now are recruited from all walks of life. Indeed this emerging "industry" can provide a significant source of employment in Scotland's more remote locations. There is a clear need for the work that we do, and resources must be found to address the vast amount of footpath erosion that is so prevalent on Scotland's mountains. We have a skilled workforce, with their competence assessed to national standards. We review our techniques, and carry out research techniques. So it seems in some ways we have indeed somehow become an "industry".

Funding and Legislation

Path work has always been a hard way to make your living. Level and availability of grant, as well as of the match funding have always dictated the level of work, as well as the seasonal distribution. The last 5 years has seen an explosion in the amount of work available, with a good deal of this grant aided through the European Structural Funds. In the light of this, it was surprising for many onlookers to see The Footpath Trust close their doors towards the end of July. However, it seems that with the imminent changes in access legislation likely to make the creation and management of access networks a statutory responsibility, Local Authorities would be the organisations to lead on this type of work in the near future within the Highlands and Islands. Access Officers are likely to link in with Local Access in the selection and management of networks. With this in mind the "Highlands and Islands Countryside Access Strategy" has taken shape, and is likely to push on with the provision of core path networks identified by means of needs analysis. Whilst this is certainly good news for all with an interest in countryside access provision, it undoubtedly means that footpath projects dealing in erosion control high up in the mountains must look elsewhere for funding. The Footpath Trust carried out a great deal of good quality work throughout Ross and Cromarty and beyond, and took one of the leading roles in the creation of the Path Industry Skills Group. The professionalism, drive and enthusiasm inherent in the way that Jo Hunt and his staff went about their business will undoubtedly be missed. Whilst no paid staff remain, a board of directors and chairman are retained, and maintenance obligations will be met. All ongoing project commitments will also be realised.

Training and Development

One of the many losses with the demise of The Footpath Trust was that of the Footpath Skills Training Project, and NTS was pleased to be able to step into the breach. Rory MacLeod, Footpath Training Officer, has been an NTS employee since May 2000. Funding was secured from SNH, NTS, and the Local Enterprise Companies and subsequently matched by the European Social Fund to produce the 84,000 required to deliver this year's project. 10 trainees have started learning their trade, and are currently working in Torridon. More training work will take place at Letterewe, Glen Lichd and Ryvoan over the coming months. Other workers who are currently employed by contractors will be accredited to SVQ standards through work based assessment at Level 2. Path supervisors and managers will be able to work towards the PISG management level qualification, and the first draft will be produced for the PISG Path Management Standards manual, following on from the production of the Technical Standards Manual in 1999.

Grant applications have been placed with both Objective 3 and the Highlands and Islands Partnership Programme with a view to securing the future of the project for the next 2 years and a decision on both is expected by early December.

The real values of the training project lie in personal development of workers and quality assurance of the path work that is carried out. It is highly skilled work using coarse materials in an environment that is frequently harsh. To get the right balance between effective construction and making the work look as informal as possible requires partnership between contract manager and the footpath team. Both must think of the work in engineering terms regarding the functionality of the work. However, at high altitude the prime motivation must be to effectively "blend in" their work to the surrounding environment, requiring the style of work to be seen from the perspective of an environmentalist and all involved to hold wild places dear to their heart. This is a difficult balance to get in any one person, and experience has shown that we must invest in training and development to ensure that new people are brought in that are capable of producing the appropriate standard of work. Further, it is equally important to retain skilled workers for a longer period of time. By offering work-based assessment at Level 2 and at Management Level, quality assurance of the work that is carried should be ensured and improved.

Research

The end of the millennium has perhaps given many of us a chance to review what we have been doing, and to think of ways that we can improve the things that we will do in the future. The path industry has been no different in this respect, and the last year has seen SNH commission an NTS managed project carried out by Bob Aitken and Paul Johnson. This has focussed on reviewing the effectiveness of techniques used to combat path erosion in the Cairngorms to date, and suggesting areas for development of new techniques and improvement of existing ones. The results are due to be circulated in October.

The Cairngorm Partnership have started a research project looking at improving re-vegetation at altitude in the Cairngorms and results are expected by the year-end.

Mountain Footpaths

NTS in the meantime has been delivering a number of EAGGF funded projects, including those at Mar Lodge Estate, Glencoe, Ben Lawers, and Grey Mare's Tail.

Glencoe Efforts have been concentrated to the lower to mid-Coire sections, with re-alignment onto single routes where a number of eroded paths exist. The sites worked this year and due to be worked next year include Coire nam Beith, Coire nan Lochan, Coire Gabhail and Allt Ruigh. Every effort has been made to minimise the visual impact of the work carried out, and the overall success of these projects will rely on hill-goers using the re-aligned routes and keeping off the damaged ground that is undergoing recovery.

Remote Systems (see article in Newsletter 45). The Mar Lodge work has required developments in techniques and methods to facilitate the work. Project work has been carried out at Coire Etchachan and Coire Odhair, with the walk in to the site far enough to force us do something about accommodating workers on site. To this end we have used Remote Accommodation Systems, with workers using a system of 3 collapsible modules. This method was piloted in a Coire Mhic Fhearchar, Torridon in 1997-1998. The system is located on site for the length of each contract and dismantled and moved off as soon as work has stopped. The systems provide sleeping quarters, a kitchen/common room, and a biological composting toilet. Waste management is geared towards complete removal of all "waste" with the exception of Grey water, and this is piped direct to a soak-away. Due to the nature of the "long walk-in" the use of these systems is likely to be a feature of path work in the Southern Cairngorms in particular.

Coire Etchachan The work at Coire Etchachan requires a great deal of sensitivity, with Upland Access Ltd providing a "light touch" approach to the work that they produce. Every feature constructed is built to look as natural as is possible, and techniques using boulders and a sinuous path line have been employed in order to remove the need for any pitching on the slope between the Hutchison Memorial and Loch Etchachan. The first phase of this work is now complete, and the team will return next summer to complete the project work.

Coire Odhair Meanwhile late summer/autumn efforts have been switched onto the slope above Corrour bothy leading into Coire Odhair. This slope had rapidly deteriorating erosion on a very steep slope. It was felt on such an unsustainable path-line the best option was to avoid heavy use of stone pitching on the erosion scar, but instead to realign and build a "stalkers" style footpath to the left of the linear scar. This path line has been adopted to disguise the impact of the route. It is narrow, and meanders up the side of the burn switching from left to right. The team have spent a great deal of time and effort on stabilising and landscaping the massive erosion scar and the success of this work really relies on hillwalkers keeping to the footpath and staying off the healing erosion scar.

Downgrading Vehicle Tracks

An innovative aspect of upland work at Mar Lodge Estate is the removal of vehicle tracks from the upper hill. These have often been viewed as aesthetically inappropriate for the high ground, a point that was clearly made in the SNH Recreation Survey (1998). In the Cairngorms the lack of tree cover and "rounded" nature of the hills means that these linear scars can be seen from many miles on a clear day. The prime motivation is to enhance the wild land quality of the hills on Mar Lodge Estate, and it is felt that one of the major indicators of a wild land experience is the distance of the individual from the nearest road. Therefore while the work is based on reducing vehicle tracks to footpaths, our view is that every mile of vehicle track removed at high altitude actually re-creates proportionally more wilderness.

Beinn a Bhuird The Beinn a Bhuird track is one of the higher profile high altitude vehicle tracks. It was built for a ski development that never came to fruition during the 1960's. The track did go all the way up to just beneath South Top at over 3000ft and we have had a team of workers up here during the autumn for the last couple of years. The reason for working the site late in the season is to balance the requirements of the vegetation, which is much more conducive to transplanting during the die-off than in the growing season, with the ability to physically work the site outside of the winter months. There are currently no plans to use fertiliser or seed mix on the high altitude sites, as there is little need for additional stabilisation to the work carried out to date. However, we are concentrating much more strongly on transplanting the montane vegetation from within the old track line. The Trust's ecologist at Mar Lodge, Kate Proctor, is carrying out a vegetation monitoring project to evaluate the survival rate of transplanted vegetation and subsequent levels of natural regeneration. The shortness of the growing season at this altitude means that this will certainly take many years.

The Geldie track is at much lower altitude than the upper Beinn a Bhuird track, and the techniques used are different. Transplanting the mature heather on this location has required a large excavator, as it is capable of lifting large clumps of heather and subsoil, thus increasing the rate of survival. This type of vegetation is particularly susceptible to disturbance.

Work on the current projects will be ongoing until the end of next year, and for further work beyond this time we must identify new sources of funding. This will not be an easy task, and if one thing is certain in such an uncertain vocation it is that there is far more new path erosion occurring in comparison to that which we are fixing. At times it seems an impossible task. However it is encouraging to witness the "industry", as it is now described, reach a point where knowledge is shared between practitioners, where review is carried out, and where desire for a more strategic method of delivery sought.

Dougie Baird, Footpath Projects Manager, 25th September 2000

Update (Feb 2001)
Hope readers understand these acronyms - PISG, SVQ, EAGGF - the editors would love to know.


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