Access is all very well, but walkers are leaving livid scars across some of our most popular mountain slopes
While rambling might do wonders for the wellbeing of walkers, its impact on the environment is not always so good. The road to hell, so the saying goes, is paved with good intentions.
On many of the roads up Scotland’s hills, however, it is evident that good intentions to become fit and healthy do little for the landscape which hikers and ramblers frequent. A recent survey of Scotland’s 283 Munros has helped to highlight the fact that, while these places are rightly famed for escaping the worst of the impact of Man’s heavy hand, the booted brotherhood of hill-walkers, Munrobaggers and high-level hoppers are beginning to make inroads into an otherwise largely unspoiled domain.
The survey in question, which was undertaken by the Munro Society, sought to measure the environmental status of Scotland’s 3000- foot peaks and, in the process, demonstrated how factors such as forestry plantations, overgrazing, hydro-electric schemes, wind farms and pylons all had a negative impact on walkers’ experiences. However, while many of these negatives can be attributed to industrial and economic necessity and therefore arguably justifi able, the most common cause for concern was caused by the walkers themselves and comes in the shape of the erosion caused by the profusion of people.
‘Should access be restricted on hillsides which bear the brunt of boots’
And, as footpaths are now some of the most obvious blights on the wilder parts of the landscape, the survey surely prompts a contentious question – should access ever be restricted on those hillsides which bear the brunt of the boots?
Anyone who has spent any time in Scotland’s more popular ‘wild’ places will have encoun-tered onetime deer and sheep tracks that have now become superhighways for walkers – ground that was once covered in heather, lichens and mosses and has now been reduced to a peaty quagmire of footprints or an exposed jumble of rock. These livid scars on the flanks of our hillsides can be an eyesore from a distance as well as unpleasant to negotiate underfoot.
Getting people active is a Ramblers Association aim.
Unsurprisingly, the Munro Society survey has identified this as being a particular problem on the peaks which are either particularly well-known, such as Ben Nevis, or within easy striking distance of the bulk of our population, such as Schiehallion, Ben Lomond and Ben Vorlich, near Loch Earn. Two of these – Ben Nevis and Schiehallion – offer particular cause for concern because they still feature at the wrong end of the survey’s results, despite the fact that their owners, the John Muir Trust, have spent considerable time and money attempting to limit the impact of the trample of boots.
Indeed, Britain’s tallest mountain has, in particular, been treated to a series of high altitude facelifts by the conservation organisation – works that have included everything from the improvement of paths, to the picking of litter, to the removal of unsightly and impractical cairns and memorials near the summit.
While the John Muir Trust, like the Munro Society, are willing to acknowledge the problem, its Chairman, John Hutchison, is quick to point out that ‘the Trust wants to support the principle of access and is not in favour of restricting where walkers can go.’ And it is clear that any mention of such restrictions is enough to have even conservation charities rushing to brandish their copies of the ‘Right to Roam’, so it is of little surprise that the Ramblers Association is keen to banish any mention of limiting numbers of walkers on particular hills. The charity, which has about 8,000 members in Scotland, is, explains Helen Todd, actually ‘trying to get more people out there. And the fact that more are going into the hills can only be a good thing.’ After all, she continues, ‘we’re keen to be promoting walking as a means of getting people active’ and, given the widespread health problems in Scotland, this is largely to be praised. Moreover, Todd believes that despite the findings of the Munro Society survey, ‘in the scheme of things I don’t think walkers are doing too much damage – indeed, generally speaking, I’m quite amazed by how difficult it can be to find a path.’ She also sees ‘electric fencing, such as keeps deer out of grouse moors in Glen Esk in Angus, and conifer afforestation causing far greater problems.’
It is apparent that many of our hills have far from a clean bill of health and that walkers are often largely to blame. However, given the health benefits of hill-walking and the support for Scotland’s liberal access laws, restriction of movement is unlikely to be countenanced unless the political climate changes or the problems caused by walkers become considerably worse.
However, to prevent the latter and to ensure that largely unlimited access can be expected for future generations, some sort of remedy is clearly required. And, for a truly sustainable solution, the good work and funding of charitable organisations such as the John Muir Trust should not be relied upon. Surely the solution should be funded by the walkers themselves?
As a result it is perhaps schemes such as that employed by the Cairngorm Outdoor Access Trust – in which path improvements are paid for by money raised in walkers’ car parks – which should act as a means to ensure that both the hills and the populace stay in rude health.