Path erosion is not a new phenomenon. But with 15.3 million visitors coming to enjoy the beautiful and inspiring Lake District each year, it is something that needs to be managed. The fells are there for everyone to enjoy but in the same way your walking boots experience wear and tear from walking, so too do the paths on which they tread. The erosion caused is exacerbated by the gradient of the path and the Lake District weather.
Erosion is basically the progressive loss of grass or vegetation and soil. When the grass or vegetation is trampled, the soil is exposed and is at the mercy of the elements. Rainfall washes soil away and gradually paths turn into channels with water running down them that become deeper over time. When the paths then become difficult to walk on, people tend to walk on the side, making the problem worse and creating scars that can be seen from miles away. Eroded paths are not only unsightly, but can lead to habitat loss, water pollution and damage to the archaeological and natural history of the area.
Photo: Sheep fleece repair
Careful attention is given to matching vegetation type, following topological and geographical characteristics and the sensitive collection of local materials. There is a high level of skill and art involved in path repairs and maintenance and the Lake District is fortunate to have staff and volunteers who have become experts in this field.
Rangers from the National Trust and the Lake District National Park Authority assess the paths and decide between them the most appropriate solutions and priorities. Whether a path is a footpath or a bridleway is taken into consideration at this stage. as different users have different needs.
We share and learn from the techniques used by other areas of the country and the world, such as the Scottish Upland Path Advisory Group, who are tackling similar issues and have a range of techniques and the national standards adopted by the House of Commons Environment Select Committee in 1995. Some of these techniques were developed here and have been exported around the world. Some of the approaches and techniques are outlined below:
Paths that are just beginning to show signs of wear can be carefully managed to prevent further erosion and help regeneration.
Path Definition – any obstructing materials are removed from the path and placed at the sides to make the edges unattractive to walk on and direct people along the right track. This work has been undertaken on the summit of Helvellyn and the rocky arête leading to the summit in recent years.
Drainage – effective and well-placed drainage can save paths from water damage. Drains are built into paths and once they are there, volunteers lead on “drain runs”, where shovels and brushes are taken up the fells to clear the drains and ensure they remain effective. Drains have recently been built on the path to Harter Fell from Jubilee Bridge in Eskdale.
Pigeon-Holing – a line of circular bare patches can occur on grassy slopes when large numbers of walkers follow the same line up a hill. If ignored, these ‘pigeon holes’ become larger and join together to form a gully. The holes can be easily repaired using seed and turf and cloche netting (a willow frame covered with chicken wire) is used to protect the area while it regenerates. This has recently been done on the path to Whiteless Pike from Buttermere.
When erosion has become too bad for prevention methods to be of any use, restoration techniques are used.
Soil Inversion – this is where the top few feet of soil is turned over so the aggregate underneath provides a firmer surface. Material is removed from the sides of the path, creating a raised path with a ditch either side for drainage. This method was used by the Romans. In recent years, this technique has used machinery to turn the soil over as it is faster and cleaner. However, the first (recent) hand-made subsoil path is being created on the Stake Pass from the Langstrath Valley in Borrowdale and this is joining the lower section of path that was created by machine. These are new skills being developed.
Stone-pitching – surfacing paths with stone looks natural and needs minimal maintenance making it ideal for remote routes and also some of the most popular paths. The technique involves setting large locally sourced stones, flattened side up, into the ground to create small irregular steps that blend into the surroundings. The precise method of the angle of these stones has changed in recent years to try to address the sometimes slippery descent when the paths are wet from rain. Helm Crag was worked on all summer by the Central Fells team and is an excellent example of what can be achieved.
Sheep’s Wool – is used in areas where the paths are boggy or peaty. Sheep fleeces are folded and rolled to create a ‘floating path’ that is then layered with stones. The sheep fleece protects the peat and soil but allows water to drain more easily. Martcrag Moor has recently had a lot of work undertaken using this technique by volunteers and staff.
The programme is flexible and the most appropriate techniques and solutions are used for each path depending on the type of soil, gradient, how busy the path is and a range of other factors. Techniques have been adapted and developed as the programme has progressed and additional skills are learnt.
We work to the latest recognised national standards of path repair.
Fix the Fells requires a lot of stone for the repairs undertaken. In the last ten years 17,000 tonnes of stones have been used and the current plan is for 4,000 tonnes to be used in the next ten years. Where possible, stone is used from as close to the path as possible to ensure it is in keeping with the existing landscape. Occasionally this is not possible as there is insufficient available or the existing stone is the habitat for a protected plant species. In these instances, rock is used from another area of the Lake District where it matches most closely. Fix the Fells works closely with Natural England, one of our core partners, tenants and land or mineral owners to ensure we do not disturb protected plant species and to identify the most appropriate alternatives.